“Nothing is easier than to give Christian asceticism a Socialist tinge. Has not Christianity declaimed against private property, against marriage, against the State? Has it not preached in place of these, charity and poverty, celibacy and mortification of the flesh, monastic life and Mother Church? Christian Socialism is but the holy water with which the priest consecrates the heart-burnings of the aristocrat.” -Karl Marx & Friedrich Engels, The Communist Manifesto, pp. 246–247
Following a series of democratizing reforms and the failed August Coup, as if a gift to Ronald Reagan himself, the Soviet Union dissolved just one day after Christmas, December 26, 1991. The foreign godless state, ruled by a council of increasingly-short-lived ancients from the glacial citadel of Moscow, as unassailable to Hitler as it was to Napoleon, like the final penitent at the Last Judgment, bent its knee to God. The Cold War was over, and, as had the Berlin Wall, the empire of evil had fallen. The ideology of Karl Marx had failed.
Or so the story goes.
And, now, as it was then, ever-creeps into political discourse this notion that Marxism, as a secularizing influence, has infected the youth, our academia, and the mainstream media with a peculiar, unethical, and untenable liberality. But stories, much like translations of ancient texts, are twice-removed from reality: first, when written, and second, when told. Is it true, as many assert, that the Sermon on the Mount cannot coexist with The Communist Manifesto? In order to uncover the truth here, we will have to, as would Marx, evaluate the material conditions involved therein, from first century Hellenized Judaea through to 20th century Russia.
As it is with any good story, let us begin near the end, with the era of Marx, and see, through the eyes of he and his contemporaries the role religion played in formulating and upholding their sociopolitical conditions.
Religion was, to Marx, as much as his concretization of the dialectic form, a port of significant departure from his stylistic predecessor and philosophical mentor Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, who was both an idealist and a Lutheran. Ethnically Jewish but not raised in the religious tradition of his forebears, he was, like a select few philosophical predecessors, granted the rare opportunity to see the world around him in a rather uniquely physicalist manner. Despite his Jewish background, his polemics, such as On the Jewish Question, against that which he saw as internalized corruption within and holding back his own “race,” so to speak, still bears criticism as an early example of antisemitism. However, I will argue that his views here may be integral in understanding his evaluations of religion in its entirety.
“Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people… The criticism of religion is, therefore, in embryo, the criticism of that vale of tears of which religion is the halo.” — Karl Marx, A Contribution to the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right
Karl Marx’s denigration of religion as the “opium of the people” is perhaps one of his most well-known but least-understood sayings. Though he was atheistic, here, he is not making a theological or religio-philosophic argument, and, furthermore, he is not delineating religious belief as a particularly problematic class that must be eliminated. Rather, he is pointing out that religion, as co-opted, weaponized, and inequitably married to the state and bourgeois apparatus of capitalistic production and power, serves the interest only of the ruling class. As Marx’s Danish existentialist counterpart Søren Kierkegaard noted in his attacks on the Lutheran State Church, “Relating oneself to the ideal in one’s personal life is never seen. This rubric disappeared long ago, and preachers, philosophy professors, and poets have taken over the place of servants to the truth…” (Journals X 1A 11).
This halo to the vale of tears, like fog on the glass mind’s eye, prevents one from being suitably reoriented toward a unified class consciousness. If one’s head is perpetually in the clouds, forever imagining the day of judgment, restitution, and eternal peace, then there is little chance one would be willing to look down, and, in so seeing their feet on the shore of Babylon, realize that there’s work to be done before one may once again call Jerusalem home. To the religious laborer, the soul must look down from its heavenly perch and realize that its physical body is burning, and that the fire is not, as one might hear from a modern televangelist, the unextinguishable lament of wrathful God, but, instead, a material phenomenon, and they, as the rightful owner of the striking rod, need merely reclaim it.
“Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for you are like unto whitewashed sepulchers…” -Matthew 23:27 (KJV, 2000)
Jesus of Nazareth, born to a family of poor laborers in the Syrian client kingdom of Hellenized Judaea, then under Roman rulership, would, as recorded in the four Gospels, spend his career as a Rabbi preaching against rote Pharisaic legalisms that sought not spiritual growth but outward praise; the spirit of the law, in other words, had been lost between the lines. Though the authors of the New Testament are, as Marx, occasionally labeled as antisemitic, the intention here is not one of malice. As Paul writes in II Corinthians 3:15–16 (RSV), “Yes, to this day whenever Moses is read a veil lies over their minds; but when a man turns to the Lord the veil is removed.” Just as the Old Covenant served as a level of separation between the Jewish people and the God to which it was pointing, so, too, per Marx, does religion, misused, serve as a disconnecting force between the religious practitioner and that for which it intends.
“To develop in greater spiritual freedom, a people must break their bondage to their bodily needs — they must cease to be the slaves of the body.” — Karl Marx, Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts of 1844
Marx’s assertions here, then, are ones of an internal liberation that leads to external liberation. He is, much like Jesus of the first century, not portraying himself as an enemy to the Jewish people, but, instead, as someone fully Jewish who wishes to propagate their renewal.
Furthermore, there are notable similarities between socialistic thought and the writings & lifestyle of early Christians, as evidenced in The Acts of the Apostles and archaeological findings (Acts 4:35 and 11:29, Montero).
With that note, we are thus brought back to the end of our tale, to Russia, and to the precipitating forces of the Bolshevik Revolution, to the interplay between the tsardom and its spiritual arm: the Russian Orthodox Church. The Orthodox Church, one of the oft-ignored Eastern wings of Christendom is, depending on whether one asks biblical scholar Bruce Metzger or his protégé Bart Ehrman, the original expression of the united Judeo-Christian sect as intended by its founders, Jesus, and, to a lesser extent, Paul, or, instead, the faction that won against its first-century Gnostic counterparts. In either case, its ideology laid the foundation for that which is considered “orthodox,” per the ecumenical councils, by every major branch of Christian thought.
The One Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church, in 451, schismed into the Eastern and Oriental Orthodox Churches, and, furthermore, into the Orthodox and Catholic (Latin) Churches in 1054. The Eastern Roman (Byzantine) Empire, operating under the jurisdiction of the Patriarch of Constantinople, maintained positive diplomatic relations with the medieval Kievan Rus’ and thereafter Russia, disseminating the Orthodox faith to their rulership, and, after Constantinople fell in 1453, Moscow took on its archetypal role as their spiritual successor, naming itself “The Third Rome” (Rapov, Strémooukhoff). Per this dictate, the Patriarch of Moscow and all Rus (today, Kirill), as did the Patriarch of Constantinople before him, operates in symphonic unity with the Russian leadership, blurring the line between religious dogma and civil law. It is amidst this foreground that Lenin states, “Atheism is a natural and inseparable part of Marxism, of the theory and practice of scientific socialism” (Religion).
This monologue thus being drawn to its close, one must question, in the last place, what it truly means to be a Christian and a Marxist — at which point do two ideas fail to logically cohere? Though it is certainly true that a Christian could not be Marx, himself, this remains tautological of the proponent of any ideology. Marx, being a sociologist, philosopher, historian, and economist, it becomes as much a chore to attempt in drawing together the disparate ends of his writings into the picture we, today, hold of this single man, long-since-passed into the annals of time. It may, as ever, be, then, the duty of each individual Christian to determine, for themselves, what they must believe.
Strémooukhoff, Dimitri (1953). “Moscow the Third Rome: Sources of the Doctrine”. Speculum. 28 (1): 84–101.
Oleg Rapov, Russkaya tserkov v IX–pervoy treti XII veka (The Russian Church from the 9th to the First 3rd of the 12th Century). Moscow, 1988
Montero, Roman A. (2017). All Things in Common: The Economic Practices of the Early Christians. Eugene, Oregon: Wipf and Stock Publishers. p. 5.
Kierkegaard, Søren (1976). Journals and Papers, trans. by Howard and Edna Hong. Indiana. Indiana University Press.
Lenin, V. I. (2007). Religion
Marx, Karl. “Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right”. Marxist Internet Archive.
Shippen, Nichole Marie (2014). Decolonizing Time: Work, Leisure, and Freedom (illustrated ed.). New York: Springer.