Marxism can only be forced into a marriage with Christianity if it is misinterpreted. Christians and conservatives can and should read Karl Marx carefully, and even develop an appreciation for his genius. But there is no Christian case to be made for Marxism.

My students often balk when I mention the enjoyment I take in reading Karl Marx. I find it gives me an opportunity to explain to the young minds sitting before me that one can admire another’s genius even while vehemently disagreeing with the ideas that proceeded from it. For most of my students, even the more liberal among them, the name “Marx” and derivations thereof persist as some of the last acceptable epithets in the English language. Perhaps he deserves as much, as the philosophy he put forth has yet to produce anywhere in the world a political order that even approaches stability and justice.

However, anathematizing Marx’s name cuts both ways. As a consequence, few in the West actually take time to study Marx seriously. Moreover, young people often take a mere cursory glance at his main ideas (usually during their college years) and ascribe wholesale to his system. Because of the taboo nature of Marxism, attraction to Marx’s thought often engenders in young people a false sense of rebelliousness and intellectual seriousness. Outside the academy, the public forum helps very little, as serious and honest criticism of Marx rarely appears there.

Earlier this summer, an article in America Magazine became the latest to bring Marxism into that forum.[1] In an unfortunate attempt to harmonize communism with Catholic theology, the end result amounted to a misreading of both Marx and the Gospels. The author says that “Many who committed their very lives to the church felt compelled to work alongside communists as part of their Christian calling.” Yet feeling or saying that one’s Christianity meshes with communism is not the same as demonstrating the internal consistency between the two, and unfortunately the click-bait-worthy title of “The Catholic Case for Communism” promises more than it could ever deliver. The fusion of the two failed in the same manner in which all other attempts have failed: it simply avoided those aspects of Marx’s thought which cannot be synthesized with Christianity.

Marx’s philosophical project turned German idealism on its head, denying history’s development as a movement of mind or spirit and asserting instead that history unfolded in materialistic, particularly economic, terms. If the proper historical conditions were to present themselves, and if the proletariat were armed with the proper insight into the historical process which brought forth those conditions, then that same historical process would become, as it were, self-aware and thus capable of directing its own movement. For Marx, this historical shift took the form of a revolution, one in which the downtrodden classes of workers could finally throw off the chains of their oppression.

At least a few difficulties for any supposed marriage between Marx and Christianity appear immediately. For one, the Marxist system of thought is inherently materialistic. Any recognition of a higher, immaterial reality would throw a wrench into the historical-dialectical machine that is Marxist historiography. Moreover, because he denied immaterial reality, Marx’s attempt at a kind of eschatology also had to arrive in materialistic terms. Though Marx provided very few concrete details about what a post-revolution, classless society would look like, this much is clear: the expectation of an afterlife and a heavenly homeland is unfounded, and therefore any hope that the proletariat has for a “New Jerusalem” will either come in this life through the destruction of class divisions, or it will not come at all.

Finally, Marx’s philosophy concerned itself with a broad, sweeping drama: the grand movement of history and the revolution which would bring that history to its completion. Therefore, he was not particularly concerned with interior conversion. The problems Marx saw were external to the human soul (economic inequality and the distribution of wealth), and his solution to those problems (revolution) was something external, as well. In other words, Marx does not seem concerned with whether or not the working class cultivated their moral character or exercised charity, but rather whether or not they would unite to throw off their chains. It is worth considering that under a materialistic worldview, the ideas which drive history are inseparable from the classes that espouse those ideas; a Marxist revolution, therefore, has as its target not merely faulty ideas about economics, but the very people who embody those ideas. The violence of Lenin, Mao, and Castro (and others) are not accidental to the Marxism which inspired them (a reality which the America piece conveniently ignored).[2]

If anyone would attempt a union between Christianity and Marxism, these are but some of the hurdles he must overcome. The America essay questions rhetorically, “Catholics have found plenty of philosophical resources in non-Christian sources in the past; why not moderns?” A fair question, but while Augustine and Thomas Aquinas found intellectual and spiritual kinship with some among the pagan Greeks, it is less clear whether a first-rate Catholic theologian could forge the same intellectual bonds with a thinker who categorically denies the transcendent, who cares little for interior conversion. Significantly, no such first-rate thinker has ever succeeded in so doing. Though facets of Marx’s thought may appeal to those who justly find themselves outraged over the plight of the poor classes around the world, it is not evident whether one can simply divorce aspects of Marx’s system from the antireligious materialism which seems to go part and parcel with his philosophy.

In the end, the Catholic “case” for communism amounts to no more than the author’s revulsion at the evils of capitalism coupled with his conviction that a Marxist brand of communism stands as “one of the few sustainable oppositions to capitalism.” But the desire to alleviate the plight of the working classes under a capitalist system does not itself make one a Marxist; it does not even necessarily make one opposed to capitalism. Numerous Catholics have responded seriously and intelligently to Marx’s keen insights into economic inequality, but sadly these voices seem to have had little effect on the America article. The idea of distributivist economics, popular among G.K. Chesterton and other Anglo-Catholics in the previous century, is one such inadequately explored middle ground between unbridled capitalism and atheistic communism. Dorothy Day herself was a rather nuanced voice on the matter, one whose subtlety of thought is often lost on those who would brand her, unfairly and oversimply, as a political liberal.[3] Intelligent criticism of Marxism comes also in the form of Cardinal Newman, Fulton Sheen, Pope Emeritus Benedict, and the late James Schall, S.J. Another woefully underappreciated voice on the matter is the eminent Jesuit philosopher Bernard Lonergan, whose philosophy of history in his book Insight both draws from Marx and offers a corrective to him.

Someone once joked that the difference between a German philosopher and a freight train is that when it goes off the rails, the freight train eventually stops. Though he went well off the rails, Marx nevertheless stands as a superb thinker if ever the West produced one, and as with any genius of his caliber, the novelty and subtlety of his thought has suffered abused by the lesser minds who followed him. You may hate him, and you may disagree with him; but if you listen to him attentively, you will learn from him, and—yes—you will even admire him. In addition to reading exhaustively from Western history and philosophy, Marx somehow had time and intellectual stamina to read copious amounts of literature. Apparently while at the dinner table, Marx and his daughters would quote freely from Shakespeare.

Sadly, the system which grew from this brilliance has done little for the common good. While I lament that Marx’s intellectual heirloom to the West has proven so divisive and destructive, nonetheless I do hope that the West produces another thinker with comparable intellectual gifts. Lonergan once quipped that Catholics would do well to spend decades in the British Museum studying history as Marx once did. Catholicism and the West more generally are still waiting for another philosopher-historian of Marx’s caliber.

America’s editor noted that the magazine published their article not as an endorsement of its content but “because it is worth reading,” and that theirs is a “journal of Catholic opinion, and Catholics have differing opinions about many things.”[4] I commend them for this, but the problem is not that America published an article about Marxism and Catholicism, but rather that the article itself avoids all the actual difficulties standing in the way. While I hope I have avoided the “claptrap” that America’s editor cautions against, I had also hoped their publication would have offered a more substantial and accessible engagement with Marxism. To paraphrase an adage popular among the Order of Preachers—the article in question has affirmed some things, it has denied other things, but it has failed to make distinctions.

We need careful readers making careful distinctions, especially from conservative and/or religious corners of the public sphere. We need them both to appreciate Marx’s genius but also to honestly name the many ways in which his thought cannot mesh with other ways of thinking, Christianity not least among them. Though I rarely agree with him, I think Marx deserves as much.

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Notes:

[1] Dettloff, Dean. “The Catholic Case for Communism.” America Magazine, July 23, 2019.

[2] Dreher, Rod. “Jesuits Rehabilitate Communism.” The American Conservative, July 25, 2019.

[3] Day, Dorothy. “Dorothy Day: What Catholics don’t understand about communism.” America Magazine, April 19, 1933.

[4] Malone, Matt, S.J. “Why we published an essay sympathetic to communism.” America Magazine, July 23, 2019.

The featured image is a photograph of Karl Marx (1818-1883), taken by John Jabez Edwin Mayal (1813-1901), courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

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