A Theological Appraisal of Marxism

maximilian-scheffler-59dcHbr9N9I-unsplash“Marxism retains all the major structural and emotional factors of biblical religion in a secularized form. Marx, like Moses, is the prophet who leads the new Chosen People, the proletariat, out of the slavery of capitalism into the Promised Land of communism across the Red Sea of bloody worldwide revolution and through the wilderness of temporary, dedicated suffering for the party, the new priesthood.”
— Peter Kreeft —

In 1967, student activist and avowed communist, Rudi Dutschke, made an impassioned speech for revolution by way of a “long march through the institutions.” Influenced by Frankfurt School theorist Antonio Gramsci, Dutschke offered an approach to societal and political change (read: revolution) that has come to see its greatest victories in the presidencies of Barack Obama and Joseph Biden—the former a disciple of Saul Alinsky and the latter a life-long liberal politician who is proving to be the most progressive US President in history.

If you are wondering what has happened to the United States in the last decade and why gender is queer, marriage is antiquated, the nuclear family is White European, chastity is oppressive, and Christianity is harmful, then you must come to grips with many of the ideas put forward during the 1960s. Dutschke was not alone in his student activism, but his notion of a long march through the institutions is illuminating for what came after the 1960s. In fact, it was the playbook endorsed by none other than cultural Marxist, Herbert Marcuse, who wrote in 1972:

To extend the base of the student movement, Rudi Dutschke has proposed the strategy of the long march through the institutions: working against the established institutions while working within them, but not simply by ‘boring from within’, rather by ‘doing the job’, learning (how to program and read computers, how to teach at all levels of education, how to use the mass media, how to organize production, how to recognize and eschew planned obsolescence, how to design, et cetera), and at the same time preserving one’s own consciousness in working with others.

The long march includes the concerted effort to build up counterinstitutions. They have long been an aim of the movement, but the lack of funds was greatly responsible for their weakness and their inferior quality. They must be made competitive. This is especially important for the development of radical, “free” media. The fact that the radical Left has no equal access to the great chains of information and indoctrination is largely responsible for its isolation. (Herbert Marcuse, Counterrevolution and Revolt, 55–56)

So, even though a rise in conservative policies came about between the presidencies of Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush, there remained a rising tide of radicals who were marching through the institutions. And today, these are the ones who are currently in charge (along a new generation of radicals taught in the institutions of higher education). These are the ones concocting bills defending post-term abortion, instantiating SOGI policies, celebrating transgenderism, implementing reparations, and threatening the right to exercise religious liberty.

Getting to Know Karl Marx 

If we are going to appreciate what is happening around us today, it is necessary to know the history of Marxism in its economic and cultural expressions. At the widest scale, Carl Trueman has devoted a chapter to Marx in his work The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self. More concisely, he also treats Marx in his book, Strange New WorldMore pointedly, Roger Kimball has chronicled, in his The Long March, the ways in which cultural Marxism has marched through the institutions of higher education, government, etc. And anyone wanting to know how we have gotten here today would be helped by these works and others (including Yoram Hazony’s Conservatism: A Rediscovery).

For this post I want to recognize the significance of Marx and the theological bases of his system of thought. In other words, despite its atheism, dialectical materialism, and antagonism towards religion, Marxism, in its various forms, is a system of salvation. As Paul Kengor notes, it is devilish system, but it is system of salvation that has a full sleight of “theological” doctrines.

In his 2019 ETS article, “Marx’s New Religion,” Robert Schwarzwalder Jr., outlines these doctrines, as well as the progenitor of this new religion. Highlighting the influences on Marx, Schwarzwalder includes the money-hungry rationalism of his father, the mythical Prometheus, a handful of Enlightenment philosophers (Feuerbach, Rossaeu, etc.), and and the New Testament critic Bruno Bauer. He writes,

Marx’s father was a man of the Enlightenment who believed in a supreme being but whose more relevant gods were Frederick the Great and the Prussian State. He introduced his son to Voltaire and Rousseau and believed deeply that reason and science were the sufficient guides to life. Marx’s mother was, apparently, religious only in a formalized sense. So, Karl’s relationship with Christian faith was substantially the formal religious training he received in the Prussian school system.

Thus, he attended university without any kind of personal faith. And at university he lost even his pro-forma religious allegiance (first at the University of Bonn, and then at the University of Berlin). It was at Berlin that he joined an organization known as the “Young Hegelians.” In his subsequent Ph.D. dissertation at the University of Jena, Marx writes approvingly of the motto of the Titan Prometheus:

Prometheus’ admission, “In truth, I hate all gods,” is [philosophy’s] own admission, its own motto against all gods, heavenly and earthly, who do not acknowledge the consciousness of man as the supreme divinity. There must be no god on a level with it. … [Prometheus says:] “I shall never exchange my fetters for slavish servility. ‘Tis better to be chained to the rock than bound to the service of Zeus.” Prometheus is the noblest of saints and martyrs in the calendar of philosophy. [Hal Draper, “Marx, Engels, and Self-emancipation,” International Socialist Review 52 (May-June 2007)]

Why was Prometheus so appealing to Marx? Because he led other Titans in an effort to dethrone the gods of Olympus. Marx, as a faithful disciple of Prometheus, spent his life seeking to dethrone the God of the Bible specifically and all gods in general. (p. 777)

Theology never emerges in a vacuum and so it is no surprise that the anti-theism of Marx has sources like these. Nevertheless, it is not just these influences that make Marx suspect, it is the content of his voluminous writing. And in his article, Schwarzwalder does us a large favor by showing “theological” ideas of Marx.

Getting to Know Marx’s Theology

Moving from the man to his message, we come to find that Marx’s ideology is religious in form and content. Highlighting this point, Peter Kreeft observes, “Marxism retains all the major structural and emotional factors of biblical religion in a secularized form.” More fully, as cited above, he likens Marx to Moses and his communist vision as a New Exodus. Similarly, Nikolai Berdyaev observes, “Marxism is not only a doctrine of historical and economic materialism . . . it is also a doctrine of deliverance, of the messianic vocations of the proletariat, of the future perfect society.” [The Origin of Russian Communism (Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan), 98].

In what follows, I will enlarge Schwarzwalder’s threefold system of Marx’s theology into nine points of Marxist doctrine. The outline below is mine, but the quotations come from various parts of Schwarzwalder’s excellent article. (For a quick read, you can scan the nine points of Marxism. Or you can read each point with the quotations, at which point you should really read Schwarzwalder’s article).

1. Theology Proper: The God of Marx’s system is man. 

“Marx’s atheism is distinctly dogmatic, in the sense that Marx always denied decidedly and uncompromisingly the existence of divine being; and this denial is one of the major cornerstones of Marx’s outlook.” [Lobkowicz, “Karl Marx’s Attitude toward Religion,” 319]

2. The World: The world is entirely material and all religion is the projection of mankind (cf. Ludwig Fuerbach)

“Marxist materialist philosophy negates the idealistic philosophical position that reality consists essentially of incorporeal essences or ideas. Marxism, as a philosophy of dialectical and historical materialism, rejects all religious systems, including Christianity, based on ideas of “divine providence” and “transcendental reality.” In this respect, it is clear that Marxism and Christianity cannot be reconciled with each other in terms of philosophy (or theology) or world outlook. [K. Mathew Kurian, “Marxism and Christianity,” Social Scientist 2.8 (March 1974), 7]

3. Man: Mankind is an economic animal who distinguishes himself by what he does, makes, or produces. Morality is seen in not living for self (i.e. , monetary greed) but living for others.

Men can be distinguished from animals by consciousness, by religion, or anything else you like. They themselves begin to distinguish themselves from animals as soon as they begin to produce their means of subsistence.” [Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, The German Ideology (New York: Prometheus, 1998), 37]

“To be human, then, is to abolish individual desire or need and absorb oneself in the aggregate common good. “’Marx is looking for people who have left their ego-dominated pasts behind and have put the interests of humanity before their own,’ Bockmuehl concludes. [Bockmuehl, Challenge of Marxism, 129]

4. Sin: Mankind, especially its economic lords (the bourgeois), exploits the common working man (the proletariat).

“[In Christianity], Sin and its consequences separate us from God. [But] In Marx, man’s only separation is that which exists because of his inability to pursue his true desires due to the coercion and repression of powerful exploiters. Unless workers have complete control of the economy, including the means of production, they can never realize their full humanity.” (Schwarzwalder, 783]

5. Salvation: When the proletariat wake up, they work together to overthrow the controller economic owners. Societal control, based on science, is the source of salvation. (N.B. The idea of “wokeness” is not original to W.E.B. DuBois or any of his disciples; the enlightenment of consciousness goes back to Marx).

To repeat, Nikolai Berdyaev observes,

“Marxism is not only a doctrine of historical and economic materialism . . . it is also a doctrine of deliverance, of the messianic vocations of the proletariat, of the future perfect society.” [The Origin of Russian Communism (Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan), 98].

6. Ethics: Might makes right. The power of the proletariat is what makes something justifiable as the masses seek to make a better world. Immediate violence is permissible in order to achieve a later, greater equality.

“In ethics Marx espouses a relativistic theory. Rights become class demands that are to be enforced rather than proved by rational argument. The claim of one class must give way to another; only force decides which; and success is the test of truth.” [Gordon Haddon Clark, Religion, Reason and Revelation (Philadelphia: Presbyterian and Reformed, 1961), 73]

7. Family: The State, and loyalty to the state, are greater than loyalty to the family.

An example of this is found in a boy by the name of Pavlik Morozov. As Jan Feldman notes,  “He was designated a hero for all Soviet children when he turned in his … father to the authorities during Collectivization, putting loyalty to the Party above personal loyalties and natural affections.” [“New Thinking about the ‘New Man’: Developments in Soviet Moral Theory,” Studies in Soviet Thought 38 (1989): 147]

8. Church: The state is the church, and the state does not permit any other church but the state. Accordingly, the people who are “saved” by the scientific control of the state must join the religion of the state, or face consequences.

Citing the impact of Marxism on nations like Russia, China, Cambodia, and North Korea, Schwarzwalder writes,

The Black Book of Communism, published by Harvard University Press, catalogs in detail the bloody fruit of Marx’s ideological tree. According the book’s editor, Stéphane Courtois, roughly 100 million people died under governments aligned with Marxist thought in the 20th century. Causes of death ranged from outright murders, mass executions, planned starvations, exile to so-called “labor camps,” and the Soviet Gulag system.” (786)

9. Last Things: With the perfection of mankind, Marx envisions a new millennium. Revolution in the present, Marx’s vision of the future is Utopian.

“In the same way as the return of the Messiah, in Christian theology, will put an end to history and establish a new heaven and a new earth, so the establishment of communism would put an end to human history … for Marx and other schools of communists, mankind, led by a vanguard of secular saints, will establish a secularized Kingdom of Heaven on earth.” [Murray Rothbard, “Karl Marx: Communist as Religious Eschatologist,” Review of Austrian Economics 4 (1990): 123, 177]

“Communism supplanted the Garden of Eden with a Rousseauian primitive man at harmony with nature. … Marx even incorporated a millenarian view of history as an evolving class struggle finally solved by the coming victory of the proletariat. Utopia represents Heaven, ultimately created on Earth—by man. The collectivist state becomes god.” [Bill Flax, “Do Marxism and Christianity Have Anything in Common?,” Forbes (12 May 2011)]

A Systemic Assessment

All in all, when we look at these doctrinal attributes of Marxism, as well as their source—an anti-theistic philosopher who sacrificed his family to achieve his literary goals and one who consorted with the devil—we have every reason to stand against Marxism and the theological systems that import its tenets. Indeed, as is evidenced in other systems of salvation (e.g., Liberation Theology, Black Liberation Theology, Feminist Theology, and Woke Theology), the specter of Marxism—while entirely foreign to Christianity—has yet inspired many “Christian” theologians and branded imprinted itself on many theologies.

In the end, faithful theologians must reckon with Marx and Marxism. And this is best done by recognizing that Marxism is anti-religious because it is hyper-religious. It is a false religion and one that is ultimately antagonistic to Christianity and all those who follow Christ. As someone familiar with Marxism, Martin Luther King, Jr. once said, “Communism and Christianity are at the bottom incompatible.” Going further he wrote,

One cannot be a true Christian and a true Communist simultaneously. … They represent diametrically opposed ways of looking at the world and transforming the world. We must try to understand Communism, but never can we accept it and be true Christians.” [“Communism’s Challenge to Christianity,”]

Indeed, after a hiatus of a few decades, the roots of Marxism have proven to bear fruit again. And because socialism is now trafficked as a social good, Christians need to take seriously the threats of Marxism. This begins by learning its tenets and then recognizing their impact on the church, its leaders, and the world around us. Hopefully, these nine points of Marxism will help show why Marxism and its theological children (liberation theology, black liberation theology, woke theology, etc.) are so subversive to the Christian gospel and dangerous to the Christian church. As Paul said so long ago,

Do not be unequally yoked with unbelievers. For what partnership has righteousness with lawlessness? Or what fellowship has light with darkness? 15 What accord has Christ with Belial? Or what portion does a believer share with an unbeliever? 16 What agreement has the temple of God with idols? For we are the temple of the living God. (2 Cor. 6:14–16)

And as the temple of the living God, let us observe the uncleanness of Marxism and “cleanse ourselves from every defilement of body and spirit, bringing holiness to completion in the fear of God.” (2 Cor. 7:1).

Soli Deo Gloria, ds

Photo by Maximilian Scheffler on Unsplash

2 thoughts on “A Theological Appraisal of Marxism

  1. Dr. Schrock,
    I enjoy your articles and have learned much from your thoughtful treatment of Scripture. Noticed your cites to Warren Gage who was a teaching elder at my church many years ago who I remember as possibly the smartest and kindest man I’ve ever known.

    • That’s great to hear. It’s always good to know that the men who are so erudite in print are also humble, kind, and gracious in person. I’ve profited much from his works. I am grateful that my site may be a help for you. Thanks for sharing. Blessings!

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