In spite of being required to read hundreds of pages of philosophy and apologetics, taking exams, and writing two term papers, I managed this week to read some Karl Marx (oh, and Frederick Engels, too). Specifically, I read Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844 and the Communist Manifesto.
As circumstances would have it, I came to read Karl Marx this week because, at least in part, one of my required term papers necessitated a trip to the bookstore. If I were a Calvinist, I would not have blamed this on circumstance, but instead asserted that I was divinely foreordained to read Karl Marx this week in order to manifest — somehow, in the long run — the greater glory of God. But, as circumstances would have it, I am a firm Arminian committed to principles of libertarian free will.
The particular volume I was in search of was Immanuel Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason. It is not important for me to explain why I was in search of the Critique. Suffice it to say, it had something to do with the ontological argument and Paul Tillich’s unique Christian ontotheology. In other words, I’m making a free choice to not include a detailed explanation. I could include it, but I am making a choice, free from compulsion, to exclude such an explanation.
While standing in front of the philosophy stack, and after having located my desired text, I scanned the various titles and names available in that stack on that day. My eyes stopped at the title Why Marx was Right. In an instant, my mind scanned through all the Cold War history I knew. Stalin’s purges. Totalitarian control of the economic, artistic, and intellectual lives of millions. Alexander Solzhenitsyn. The fall of the Berlin Wall. I even recalled visiting a bank once in which hung a framed piece of the Berlin Wall.
None of this history seemed to indicate that Karl Marx was right. At least, not to the extent to which the raising of the Iron Curtain was motivated by the thought and writings of Marx. At the time, I didn’t even consider the range of people I’ve met throughout my life who had fled the Communism of Eastern Europe by their own free choice, free from compulsion, although they could’ve chosen to stay.
I bought the book on impulse.
Of course, I could not yet read the book. Not because I had hundreds of pages to read and thousands of words to write for school. Not because I was not free to choose to read the book. I could not read Why Marx was Right and judge its argument fairly if I had not yet read Marx.
Luckily, on a previous trip to the bookstore, unrelated to any formal academic requirements, I had bought Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts having seen it in the same philosophy stack and, realizing that I had never read Marx, thought that one day I should. That purchase was, of course, an impulse buy.
I impulse-buy books a lot. Each time it’s a free choice, no compulsion. If my wife could compel me to never buy another book, she probably would, at least not in quantity, like the night I bought Why Marx was Right and Critique of Pure Reason. Those weren’t the only books I went home with. Luckily, I still went home with my wife, even after she exercised her own free choice in snatching up the receipt and then glaring at me.
Now, having read Marx, or at least a part of Marx’s work (Capital, Volume I is another book that went home with me that night), I am capable of offering an initial assessment prior to reading Why Marx was Right.
First, it’s important to say that, from a Christian perspective, Marx says a lot of things that make sense. For example, he speaks up against materialism — that is, as in the Madonna 1980s MTV hit, not materialist naturalism — when he writes:
“Private property has made us so stupid and one-sided that an object is only ours when we have it — when it exists for us as capital, or when it is directly possessed, eaten, drunk, worn, inhabited, etc., — in short, when it is used by us. Although private property itself again conceives all these direct realizations of possession as means of life, and the life which they serve as means is the life of private property — labor and conversion into capital.” (106)
I think the Christian term Marx is looking for here is covetousness and its cousin avarice. The problem here with Marx’s formulation is that he’s completely leaving out the element of human nature. He would have his reader believe that private property necessitates covetousness and avarice, but as any Christian could tell you, that is not the case. “Thou shalt not covet,” just like every other law in the Decalogue, is given in order to draw attention to the faults of human nature, not to condemn but to encourage its hearer to overcome, or at least fight against, that fault in his nature. Abolishing private property would do no more in eliminating covetousness as abolishing guns (or knives, or axes, or . . .) would in eliminating murder. The problem is not inanimate things or the means by which they’re procured, the problem is human nature.
This ignorance of human nature permeates Marx’s thought, and it is, as far as I can tell, the greatest evidence of the failure of his thought. Just a few pages after the quoted passage above, Marx speaks to the consequences of this circular materiality by pointing out that a person in constant need and who must work to fulfill that need has no time to develop his higher nature. Again, as a Christian, I find nothing to disagree with on the surface. Whether the cycle of work-to-spend-to-work is attributable to poverty or to one’s own choices or both, one is distracted from developing intellectually or spiritually. But lacking in Marx’s assessment is a realistic assessment of human nature, particularly one aspect of human nature: free agency.
The reason I made so much ado in the opening paragraphs was to drive home the point that free agency is endemic to human nature. I’d even go so far as to say that free agency — the ability of any individual to exercise his free will without compulsion — is the most fundamental component of human nature because it is from this component that every other aspect of human nature is built.
Nobody, Christian or otherwise, needs to affirm or believe the literal truth of the second and third chapters of Genesis in order to affirm the psychological truth that the story contains. In the Garden of Eden, there was one prohibition — do not eat of that tree. We are not told why that tree was prohibited over another tree. The reason why it was prohibited is not important. That it was prohibited is crucial because its prohibition and the actions of Eve and Adam regarding it reveal the fundamental truth of human nature — everything comes down to choices.
Eve did not have to eat from the tree. She could’ve made a different choice. Likewise for Adam. It’s even possible (maybe even necessary) to conclude that the serpent could’ve chosen to just let Eve pass. But he didn’t. And serpents aren’t human.
I can anticipate what some of my neo-Marxist friends will say next: “The poor don’t choose to be poor.” To which I say, “Touche my friends, touche.”
The poor don’t choose to be poor, at least not most of them. But to blindly assert that the abolition of private property would eliminate poverty is naive at best. But for the sake of argument, let’s assume that the abolition of private property and an equal redistribution of the capital aggregated by said abolition was sufficient to meet the needs of everyone for maintaining their standard of living pre-abolition. What are those people going to do post-abolition?
The answer: Make choices.
And whether we like to hear it or not, some of those choices, maybe even a lot of those choices, are going to be bad choices. Some people will squander their newfound wealth on booze, or drugs, or gambling, or whatever. And others will gladly relieve those people of that wealth by supplying booze, drugs, casinos, or whatever. Yet others will invest their wealth. Some will just sit on it and continue as they were.
Makes me think of another story from the Bible — the parable of talents — in Matthew 25. Again, one need not affirm its literal truth (mostly because it’s a parable and not intended to be taken literally) in order to grasp its psychological truth. If you give three people a resource — money, knowledge, talents — they will each make three independent choices about what to do with that resource. There’s also the insight that the servant who was given the least did the least, but I’ll leave that one for later.
What, then, is a good, compassionate, proletarian-oriented Marxist to do? How can we overcome the problem of human free agency in order to maximize the redistribution of wealth after abolishing private property?
The answer: force.
It is not possible to be a consistent Marxist without simultaneously being a consistent totalitarian. Since human free agency, being a fundamental aspect of human nature, necessarily prevents any conceivable success for Communism, the only alternative is to force individuals to do things against their will, to violate their free agency. This is a brute fact of any Marxist-inspired system, all platitudes to democracy notwithstanding.
As an American, this is also the most troubling fact about the recent rise in open and apparent Marxist sympathies during the 2018 midterm elections. If Marx is inconsistent because he denies human nature, then the new breed of neo-Marxists are inconsistent because they haven’t read Marx.
Here’s a few facts:
Marxism is not about minimum wages. Marx actually wrote against minimum wage increases.
Marxism is not about immigration. Marx actually wrote that any successful Communist revolution would necessitate the expulsion of immigrants.
Get this, Marx wrote against minimum wage increases because he recognized that, as a form of solving the problem of wealth inequality, they were unsustainable.
And this one: the reason Communist revolutionaries must expel immigrants is because they’re assumed to form an underclass that dilutes the pool of redistributed wealth.
I’m not agreeing with Marx. I’m just betting that self-described Democratic Socialists and other Communist-inspired, politically active Americans aren’t in agreement with him either.
Then there’s the inconsistency regarding force. Marx asserts that private property and free markets force people into a labor-capital arrangement. Thus, it’s so much better to violently overthrow freely elected governments in order to force other people to relinquish their free will so that the revolutionaries can congratulate themselves on what wonderful things they’ve done to advance humanity forward.
I need not point out the ethical and moral inconsistencies inherent in such a proposition. But just in case you’re inclined to raise them, Marx has a show-stopping counter argument:
“The charges against Communism made from a religious, a philosophical, and, generally, from an ideological standpoint are not deserving of serious examination.” (228)
Well then, since you put it that way.
Tell me again about Democratic Socialism.
There’s one other psychological lesson to be gleaned from Genesis 2 and 3 that has relevance to this discussion. The question could be asked, “Why would God place the tree there anyway? Or why not create Adam and Eve so that they couldn’t make the wrong choice?”
Compelled obedience is not obedience. Compelled equality (however one chooses to define equality) is not equality. It’s force. Force must be justified. If God was not willing to use force to compel obedience, one is left free to reason that God values freedom as a primary consideration. And God, being God, arguably could justify using force in that situation — certainly all of humanity would’ve benefited. Or would they? And if God, being God, did not use force to violate free will — free will that he grants — what possible justification could we, or Marx, or anyone supply?
But I withhold judgment. I haven’t read Why Marx was Right yet.
Maybe I’ll continue this conversation later. Maybe I won’t. I’ll have to make a choice.