I didn’t anticipate writing more about Marx beyond my comments last week about how despite being an avowed critic of religion, Marx has had profound impacts on Christianity, but here we are because I couldn’t help notice some parallels between the Europe of Marx’s time and the America of ours.
In honor of Karl Marx’s 200th birthday, I’m reading Gareth Stedman Jones’ Karl Marx: Greatness and Illusion.
As a philosophical biography, Stedman Jones’ work is focused beyond just the nuts-and-bolts info of Marx’s life; instead, he takes pains to paint the social and philosophical context into which Marx was born and raised. This is very helpful, as no one thinks in a vacuum, and if we are to understand Marx and what he believed, we should also understand the currents into which he was born.
It’s easy to imagine 19th-century Europe as wholly unlike anything we know. And in many ways it was. They fought wars with horses. Italy didn’t exist. Neither did Poland. Or Belgium. Russia was ruled by tsars, a word I still don’t know which way to spell. There were many places that called themselves empires without flinching. Monarchs were still actually making life-or-death decisions about their subjects instead of waving to them every few months.
But in many ways, that old order – the economically feudalistic, politically monarchic – was breaking apart. When Marx was born in 1818, the American and French revolutions were less than 50 years old. The latter especially had sparked the imaginations of reformers across Europe – and the retrenchment of the conservative old guard who saw their skepticism of its rationalism and republicanism vindicated when it collapsed into bloody terror and resulted in the rise of Napoleon shortly thereafter.
On top of those brewing battles was the unsettled situation in the Rhineland, the largely Catholic region in western Germany where Marx was born.
Three years before Marx’s birth, Napoleon’s disastrous march on Russia came to a final end. The Rhineland had flourished under French liberalism, but as part of the peace treaty ending the Napoleonic War was placed in the hands of the Kingdom of Prussia, which ruled with a decidedly more conservative approach.
Initial hopes that Prussia would undertake liberal reforms – such as instituting a representative assembly, allowing a freer press and providing for greater religious freedom for non-Protestants – slowly withered through the 1820s. Then in 1830, France revolted again, overthrowing the monarchy once and for all, followed by Catholic Belgium’s revolt against Protestant Dutch rule and then Poland’s unsuccessful revolution against its Russian overlords. Rumblings that Germans would revolt against the Prussian monarchy led to further repression.
If we understand that Marx was a teen when efforts to reform the Prussian state led only to further crackdowns while revolutions based on the establishment of popular sovereignty exploded in surrounding nations, we have a much better idea of where his political philosophy came from.
At 18, Marx moved from the Rhineland to the burgeoning city of Berlin, where he drank deeply from the philosophical currents of Kant, Hegel and others, who believed history moved overwhelmingly in one direction: forward. This was the height of Enlightenment optimism (some might say arrogance) about the ability of humanity to reshape its world and usher in a utopian society. This philosophical idealism “stressed human freedom, the active role of the mind in shaping knowledge and activity, and the ability of reason to resist and overcome natural desires” (p. 71).
Not surprisingly, this optimism about humanity tended to leave little room for God. The rising importance of biblical criticism contributed to this reassessment of the divine. The Protestant leaders of the Prussian monarchy were not pleased. They responded with crackdowns on religious and press freedom, censoring or banning books and publications that questioned traditional conceptions of God, increasingly identifying conservative Christianity with good citizenship, to the extent they believed in citizenship at all.
By 1842, when Marx was 24, the Prussian government allowed the publication of the Rheinische Zeitung, a pro-Catholic newspaper for the Rhineland the king hoped would mollify the restive population. That didn’t work out well, as Marx, one of its strongest voices and eventually the editor, “progressed towards a more explicit commitment to a republican position,” and “contrasted the ‘Christian state’ to the ‘true state’, ‘rational state’ or, sometimes, just ‘the state’.” (p. 107)
An argument could be made – and Stedman Jones makes it, and perhaps so does Marx himself – that it was Marx’s philosophical rejection of traditional conceptions of God, following in the line of Bruno Bauer, Ludwig Feuerbach and others that led him to a republican critique of the monarchy. But I don’t think that’s entirely correct.
Consider that Marx was born in a Jewish family where his father nevertheless was baptized a Protestant in order to maintain his career as a lawyer. Consider that Marx came of age in an era where revolutions on the basis of popular sovereignty and individual liberty were successful even as his own country retreated into repression.
Especially consider this description (emphasis added) from Stedman Jones of Prussia in the 1840s, when Marx was beginning what he hoped would be an academic career, one that would be scotched by the Prussian censorship and blacklisting of his mentor, Bauer:
It combined feudal and aristocratic features – lack of equality before the law and a hierarchical estate system – with vigorous economic expansion … and the liberalization of the labor market. … For all its emphasis upon the restoration of traditional Christianity, the Prussian government of Friedrich Wilhelm IV in the 1840s made no attempt to reverse the process of economic change, introduced during the ‘Reform Era’. The enlargement of the Zollverein [German common market] and the extension of the free market remained central to its ambitions. … The resulting state was an aggregation of transcendant authorities, while those beneath, the people, were merely ‘a rabble of individuals’. (pp. 108-109)
And notice especially this observation by Stedman Jones:
The inhabitants of this state were tied together by their commitment to the Christian faith. But there was no collective dimension to salvation; personal salvation was an individual matter. … As Karl argued, censorship had been redefined in such a way that rationalism … was now penalized as a threat to religion.
Karl Marx came of age in a society where defense of traditional Christianity was wedded to defense of a state that prioritized free markets over legal and political equality. It’s not surprising, therefore, that Marx saw Christianity as a barrier, rather than an aid, to the political revolution he felt necessary to free his fellow Germans from Prussian autocracy.
This wasn’t original to Marx’s writings. As Stedman Jones points out, Machiavelli, Gibbon, Voltaire and Feuerbach tilled the ground, citing Christianity’s focus on the afterlife as impeding the connections in this life necessary for political reform and revolution.
By the end of 1842, it was clear that the Prussian government would abolish the Rheinische Zeitung the next spring, precipitating Marx’s exit from Germany just five years before its own, ultimately doomed revolution raged.
In a letter, Marx said he had been criticizing religion within the framework of his political critiques “since this was more in accord with the nature of a newspaper,” but now he was reversing the structure – basing his critique of politics on the more fundamental beliefs about religion. “For religion is without content; it owes its being not to heaven, but to earth; and with the abolition of distorted reality, of which it is the theory, it will collapse of itself.” (p. 120, emphasis in original)
Whether this is true or not (and again, I’m skeptical that Marx could have grown up where and when he did and not had political presuppositions that colored all future philosophizing), it’s clear that Marx over the course of his early 20s found little of practical value in Christianity – and indeed found it wholly incapable of meeting a moment that called for greater equality, greater freedom, greater self-governance. The result was a lifelong antipathy to “the opiate of the masses” – a belief structure seemingly designed to pacify, rather than inspire, people to fight for their own and others’ freedom.
Does Marx’s early career hold lessons for us two centuries later? It’s hard not to see parallels between Stedman Jones’ description of 19th century monarchic Prussia and 21st century democratic America: from its “emphasis on the restoration of traditional Christianity,” to its ambition of “extending the free market” while incubating a “lack of equality before the law.”
Of course, much is different, as well. Our traditions of free speech, press and religion remain largely intact; Jefferson’s “wall of separation” between church and state has generally held, limiting the pernicious effects of other-worldly fundamentalism on the this-worldly duties of government.
Yet the trend seems to be moving backward at present. If we learned anything between Marx’s time and our own, it’s that unalloyed optimism about human enlightenment and progress is misplaced. History does not move in a straight line. In an era where many Christians openly pine for theocratic governance, where economic and racial disparities undermine the principle of equal justice for all, where the god Mammon rules unchallenged on its capitalist throne, we should see Marx’s life as a warning.
Christianity’s relationship with Marxism has been generally poor, the aforementioned Social Gospel and liberation theologians excepted. Much of this is rightly because of the horrific brutality of communist governments acting in Marx’s name, but much of it also was the ill-advised marriage of Christianity to Cold War patriotism and the ongoing blasphemous association of Christ and capitalism.
Whatever the cause, to the extent Christians despise Marx and his message, we should take care: Marxism is a beast Christianity helped to create, and we are not immune from repeating the mistakes our forebears made 200 years ago.