Communism’ is a likely candidate for ‘touchiest word of the 20th century’.
While the word evokes many high-charged reactions, two seem consistent among American conservatives: First, communism is associated with naïve hippies who think there should be no war and want to sing ‘Why Can’t We be Friends?’ at Kim Jong-Il. We gape at it and exclaim, “Really? Really?”
The second association conjures up images of Soviet statues and Cold War newspaper headlines, starving citizens and maniacal despots. We think the USSR—along with North Korea, China, Vietnam, et cetera—was the inevitable product of those silly utopians.
Popular assessment of Communism treats the philosophy is as if it were like Spongebob, initially dripping with obnoxious optimism, but a Spongebob destined to devolve into a fanged beast wielding automatic weaponry. (Although, on second thought, Spongebob can’t be a communist since he owns pineapple property.)
Maybe it’s time we compare our presuppositions to what the original Communists said about Communism. It’s exasperating when people point to the Crusades and call Christianity ‘violent and cruel’–communism should receive the same fair trial that we demand for Christianity.
The Communist Manifesto was born amid the insufferable social conditions of the 19th century Industrial Revolution. The Communist League had commissioned Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels to create a document that would outline the rationale and goals of Communists–a fair reading of the end product will evidence that Communism, as originally imagined, was neither Utopian nor tolerant of totalitarianism.
Karl Marx openly derides “utopian socialists” in the Manifesto. He scoffs at their plan to “attain their ends by peaceful means” and end class struggle by “reconcili[ing] class antagonisms.” Marx insists that only violent revolution can destroy the Bourgeoisie/Proletariat class divide. By eradicating the Bourgeoisie, the Proletariat ends class friction and becomes the only class; ‘reconciliation’ is “fanatical and superstitious.”
Although Marx died in 1883 and never saw 20th century USSR, he would have also considered the Soviet project to be Communist heresy. Aside from the fact that Russia’s leap from Feudalism into Communism contradicted Marx’s theory of social evolution, the USSR did not eradicate class struggle–not even close. The USSR, like its modern counterparts, was a society solidly divided between ‘Party members’ and ‘non-Party members’. Far from Marx’s vision of Proletariats abolishing all political powers after annihilating Bourgeoisie, the Soviet ‘Party’ was hopped up on bureaucratic steroids, constantly exercising political muscles. So, just as Marx’s Communism is not Utopianism, we should be wary of associating Communism and Stalin’s Russia or similar dystopic states.
Approaching the Manifesto with generosity towards Marx’s ideas will both address false suppositions about Communism and allow us to truly learn from Marx and honestly oppose him. The Manifesto might not have answers, but it sure can raise questions. Instead of merely going to war with Marx, read the Manifesto as if you were talking to a friend. Assume Marx knows that Utopias are unrealistic, and assume he’s not despotic.
We find that Marx has some valuable words for us. Often, his critiques of capitalism contain painful accuracy:
The bourgeoisie has stripped of its halo every occupation hitherto honoured and looked up to with reverent awe. It has converted the physician, the lawyer, the priest, the poet, the man of science, into its pain wage-labourers…That [capitalist] culture…is, for the enormous majority, a mere training to act as a machine.
Marx presents a real concern for any Christian opponents: how can communism be rejected as ‘materialist’ when our consumer culture is little different? If we want to reject his solution, we need legitimate grounds and consistency. For example, theologically, Marx’s materialist teleology clashes with our doctrine of a Kingdom of Heaven distinct from a Kingdom of Earth—but so does consumer capitalism. We are challenged to find a third option: a plan to address social injustices through relationship rather than infrastructure.
Awareness and familiarity with Marx will accredit Christian responses to Communism. But, even more, developing the awareness will force us to think critically about how we ought to navigate and value our material world. Careful thought is essential, as our goal is a high one: to love our neighbor as ourselves or, as Dorothy Day wrote, “make life here for others a foretaste of the life to come.” ‘