Marx asked the famous naturalist if he could dedicate the English translation of his 1867 work, Das Kapital, to him. No doubt Marx’s scorn for religion had preceded him, however. Darwin refused in deference to his wife, who was a staunch believer in God.
It may seem paradoxical that two men with a similar impact on the religious belief of the Western world could not agree on so simple a request. But there are many paradoxes in the life of each man when it comes to their subsequent profound influence.
In the Winter 2002 issue of Vision we began a series on six ideas that have dominated the education and thinking of millions since their introduction in the late 19th century. We looked first at Darwin’s theory of evolution. We noted that its component parts—the idea that higher forms continually develop out of lower forms as a natural and automatic process; and the survival of the fittest, or competition, as the mechanism of that evolutionary process—have debilitated the beliefs, thinking and morality of many for well over a century.
Another idea that has deeply influenced millions in the modern world is Marxism, along with its stepchild Marxist-Leninism. Although the end of the 20th century saw the startling collapse of communism in the Soviet bloc, the concepts of Marx and Lenin continue to have a subterranean impact. In the Middle East, for instance, the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, the second-largest faction of the PLO, operates on a platform of Arab nationalism combined with Marxist-Leninist ideology.
From the beginning it seemed that Marx was going to lead a life punctuated by conflict. He was born of Jewish parents in 1818 in the city of Trier, then a part of Prussia. His mother was Dutch and his father Prussian, both from a long line of rabbis. Just before Karl’s birth, however, his father, Heinrich, converted to Christianity and became a baptized member of the Evangelical Established Church. It is thought that this was an attempt to help his professional life as a lawyer at a time when anti-Semitism was on the rise, with the Prussian government banning Jews from high positions in law and medicine.
Young Karl was baptized at the age of six and defended his Christian faith in his early years. But the family’s experience with discrimination was never far from the surface. Combined with Heinrich Marx’s interest in Enlightenment social thinkers such as Voltaire and Kant, this may have led the young Marx to an interest in radical social ideas and his later questioning of religion’s role in human existence.
In 1835 Marx entered the University of Bonn and found himself among a politically rebellious student body. In his one year there, he studied Greek and Roman mythology and the history of art. He also fought a duel, was arrested for possessing a pistol, was imprisoned briefly for drunken conduct, and participated in various antiestablishment student activities.
He continued his studies in Berlin, changing his focus to law and philosophy. There he came in contact with the works of the philosopher Hegel. As a Young Hegelian, Marx joined the Doctor Club, whose leader was Bruno Bauer, a lecturer in theology. In Bauer’s view, a social catastrophe was brewing—one that would have a greater impact than that of the advent of Christianity. Under his influence, the Young Hegelians began migrating toward atheism and hinting at political action.
At the same time, the anti-Semitic Bauer was advocating the notion that the Christian Gospels were not a historical record but merely human fantasies arising from emotional needs. He claimed that Jesus had not been a flesh-and-blood person but rather a figment of the imagination. Was it Bauer’s influence in part that led Marx to his later well-known statements about religion and his own Jewish heritage? Marx wrote, “Man makes religion, religion does not make man… . Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, just as it is the spirit of spiritless conditions. It is the opium of the people.”
Commenting on this infamous dictum, one current author, Jack Nelson-Pallmeyer, writes, “Marx drew a sociological conclusion based on the role and impact of religion within oppressive societies… . For Marx, religion was like a drug that diverted attention from the social causes of human misery. It served the interests of the upper classes and robbed the oppressed of authentic hope” (Jesus Against Christianity: Reclaiming the Missing Jesus, 2001).
Marx concluded that the higher manifestations of human life, such as art and religion, are phantasmagorias in the brains of men. He said that these activities and others like them are nothing but the evidence of the class struggle between the economically deprived and their masters. In his view they are invented to promote the economic interests of the rich. Thus Marx reduced all higher order human endeavor to nothing but a Darwinian-style competition for advantage. He believed religion played a deceptive role in inducing the compliance of the underclasses to the dominant capitalist system with the promise of an infinitely superior afterlife: suffer now, postpone your reward, receive it in heaven.
By 1841 Marx had received his doctorate from the University of Jena, after encouragement by his friends to submit his dissertation to an institution known for its lax academic standards. He subsequently wrote for the Rheinische Zeitung of Cologne, which because of its radical articles was suspended from publishing by the Prussian authorities in 1843.
A few months later Marx married Jenny von Westphalen after a seven-year engagement. Four years his senior, she was from a prominent Prussian military family. The couple soon moved to Paris, the center of socialist thought in Europe. Here Marx immersed himself in communism and the plight of the working man, and helped establish a second publication, the Deutsch-Französische Jahrbücher (German-French Yearbooks).
In response to an essay written by his former teacher, Bauer, who had demanded that the Jews give up Judaism, Marx published two essays in 1844 “On the Jewish Question,” in which his own anti-Semitic attitude came to the fore.
He asserted that the Jews’ “antisocial” nature was not, as Bauer claimed, the result of their religion but of economics. It is interesting to note that Marx had money problems most of his adult life, so moneylenders were not his favorite people. He wrote: “Money is the jealous god of Israel, in face of which no other god may exist. Money degrades all the gods of man—and turns them into commodities. Money is the universal self-established value of all things. It has, therefore, robbed the whole world, both the world of men and nature, of its specific value. Money is the estranged essence of man’s work and man’s existence, and this alien essence dominates him, and he worships it. The god of the Jews has become secularized and has become the god of the world.”
In turn, Marx said, the Jew had corrupted the Christian and persuaded him that the pursuit of materialism was the goal of human life. The “money-Jew” had become the “universal antisocial element of the present time,” he wrote. If the Jewish approach to money could be changed for good, then the Jew and his religion and corrupted Christianity would disappear.
Marx’s stay in Paris was not to last. By this time he also had begun to call for an uprising of the proletariat—the underclass. In 1845 he and his wife moved to Brussels following his expulsion from France through intervention by the Prussian government. Perhaps not surprisingly, that year Marx renounced his Prussian citizenship.
Enter Communism, Stage Left
Marx’s ideas about the social and economic order now developed to the point that in late 1847 he and the man who became his lifelong collaborator and financial supporter, Friedrich Engels, were asked by a group of German craftsmen in London to join their secret society and write a declaration of principles. Marx and Engels worked intensively for about a month on the project. The result was The Communist Manifesto, which laid out the proposition that up to that time all of human history had been a series of class struggles and resulting economic developments. It predicted that eventually the proletariat would rise up and abolish class society forever. This was based on the Hegelian notion of dialectics—that everything is in a continual process of change due to the conflict between contradictory aspects—and the additional notion that material conditions are more important than the world of ideas.
The Communist Manifesto included 10 necessary action steps. Among them were progressive income tax, the abolition of inheritances, and free education for children. Other steps clearly became part of the revolutionary programs of the communist states of the 20th century, denying many of the customary freedoms that the world now takes for granted. The document ended: “The Communists disdain to conceal their views and aims. They openly declare that their ends can be attained only by the forcible overthrow of all existing social conditions. Let the ruling classes tremble at a communist revolution. The proletarians have nothing to lose but their chains. They have a world to win. Working men of all countries, unite!”
In the months that followed, parts of Europe were convulsed by working-class struggles. In France, Italy and Austria revolutions were in progress. Marx advocated that workers join forces with the democratic bourgeoisie, or capitalist middle class, rather than directly overthrow the entire system. He believed that the ultimate downfall of the capitalist order would take years and should proceed in gradual stages. At the same time, with this approach the workers would have time to prepare for positions of leadership.
Because of the volatility of the revolutionaries in Europe, Marx and Engels agreed in 1848 that their communist manifesto should be set aside for a time to avoid encouraging too hasty an overthrow of the economic and social order. Irrespective of the reasons for backing away from instant overthrow, it is an irony that throughout Marx’s dealings with the working class he did not accord them much respect, preferring the company of intellectuals.
In 1849 Marx and his wife moved to London, where they would live for the rest of their time together. He spent the next 34 years in the British Museum, poring over books in an effort to write his monumental work on capital. He managed only one volume before his death in 1883; the other two volumes were completed by Engels from his friend’s notes.
A Violent Recluse
What is peculiar about Marx and his writing is that so much of what he produced was based on notes he took from other books; rarely was it from personal experience. Though his uncle was the founder of what became the Dutch electrical giant Philips, Marx never consulted with him about labor and capital, nor about any of his other research interests. According to author Paul Johnson, “so far as we know Marx never set foot in a mill, factory, mine or other industrial workplace in the whole of his life” (Intellectuals, 1988).
Yet, Johnson comments, despite the poverty of experience behind his writings, Marx “has had more impact on actual events, as well as on the minds of men and women, than any other intellectual in modern times.” The reason is that his ideas were institutionalized by two of the world’s largest countries, Russia and China, and followed slavishly with disastrous consequences by Lenin, Stalin and Mao Zedong.
The violence perpetrated by these men and their regimes has some telling parallels in the life of Karl Marx. A violent man will beget violent ideas. As noted earlier, Bruno Bauer had taught that a world catastrophe was in the making. From an early age Marx was possessed of the idea that Doomsday was around the corner. Johnson notes that Marx’s poetry includes expressions of “savagery … intense pessimism about the human condition, hatred, a fascination with corruption and violence, suicide pacts and pacts with the devil.” A poem about Marx, variously attributed to Engels and to Bauer’s brother Edgar, describes him as “A dark fellow from Trier, a vigorous monster, / … / With angry fist clenched, he rants ceaselessly, / As though ten thousand devils held him by the hair.”
In Marx’s personal life, violence was never far from the surface. He was verbally abusive, and arguments were common within his family. According to an Encyclopedia Britannica account on Marx, his father even expressed fears that Jenny von Westphalen was “destined to become a sacrifice to the demon that possessed his son.” Jenny commented early about the rancor and irritation she often experienced in dealing with her fiancé.
Summarizing Marx’s animosities, the late British historian Sir Arthur Bryant wrote: “Among his innumerable hates were the Christian religion, his parents, his wife’s uncle—‘the hound’—his German kinsfolk, his own race—‘Ramsgate is full of fleas and Jews’, the Prussian reactionaries, the Liberal and utopian Socialist allies, the labouring population—‘Lumpenproletariat’ or ‘riff-raff’—democracy—‘parliamentary cretinism’—and the British royal family—‘the English mooncalf and her princely urchins,’ as he called them. His self-imposed task he defined as ‘the ruthless criticism of everything that exists.’”
Looking back on the life and writings of Karl Marx, it is difficult to erase the more recent memory of the spectacular failure of his theories. Stalin and Mao killed millions in their efforts to maintain ruthless state control. Marx’s economic theories did not bring resolution to the wrongs that he saw in the social order. In fact, his theories were catastrophic for the lives of millions, and continue to be so in the aftermath of communism’s collapse.
Along with the ideas of the man he respected so highly—Charles Darwin—the certainty accorded Marx’s theories of economic man has proven ill founded.