Now officially retired, I'm the Director of a volunteer church outreach: Trinity-at-Waiake eLearning Centre. Our website and ePortfolio is kiwiconnexion.nz for lifelong learning and spirituality, creating an online community of best practice and resourcing for professional development, with an emphasis on Methodism. Read more
- First name: David
- Last name: Bell
- Blog address: http://trinitybells.blogspot.co.nz/
- City/region: Auckland 0630
- Country: New Zealand
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Marx and Engels - Prophets of God?
Consider the two Old Testament prophets, Amos and Hosea.
What was truly great within their prophesies was completely unexpected. Amos said that God’s judgement will fall on all nations, not just Israel. And Hosea said God is both righteous and forgiving. Neither of these two important principles had been articulated before in Jewish religion. All this took place before 750 BC.
Some of you have read the books of Amos and Hosea so you have read prophecies written down some 2750 years ago.
Let me articulate the principles again: God and God’s judgement is for all nations. God is both righteous and forgiving. That should make you think. When you read those, you are aware you are speaking from something that is as ancient as days and as fresh as today.
Now Karl Marx is in the prophetic line of Amos. Like Amos he had a basic concern for injustice. His concern spread across all nations. Marx was an internationalist.
Yet, against all that, Marx denied God, and said in an infamous phrase that religion was the opium of the people.
So what right have I to call him one of God’s prophets? Indeed some of you have fought directly in wars that owe their intellectual base to Marxism, so you might curse me for calling Marx a prophet of God. Korea, Vietnam, and many conflicts in southern Africa have their origin in Marxist theory.
Yet there is a side to Marxism that everyone in this room also enjoys. If you have ever worked for anyone else, you enjoy paid holidays. The concept of fair old-age pensions, and medical assistance in times of trouble and need directly stem from Marx’s analysis of the need to change the conditions of the poorest sections of society. There is no difference between Marx’s concern for the unjust treatment of the poor and what Amos said in God’s name thousands of years beforehand.
So let me sketch a few biographical details of this extraordinary man, Karl Marx, who has had a direct effect on the lives of billions of people in China, South America, Africa and eastern Europe, as well as an indirect influence on the rest.
Karl Marx was born in Germany in 1818 and died in London in 1883, where he had lived for more than half his life. He was born of a Jewish mother and father, although his father renounced Judaism to become a Lutheran. Marx as a boy did exactly the same as his father. Why? Why should Jews become Christians?
Well, quite simply blatant prejudice. For Marx senior to keep his job as a lawyer in the High Court he had to foreswear his background. Germany, Austria, and many other places in cultured European capitals operated with an anti-semitism that was wicked. Blind prejudice marginalized the Jews, ghettoized them, across Europe. The seeds of the holocaust thus were sown, often by Christians and church leaders in positions of power and influence.
So Jewishness made young Marx an outsider. He had to pretend it wasn’t there, and this he did by being a Lutheran. The experience of being discriminated, hated, and alienated from society inevitably led to his concern for those in society least able to defend themselves.
In a nutshell, Marx went to the University of Bonn, then Berlin. He led a riotous student life but eventually emerged with a Doctor of Philosophy as a burning desire. This was, in a nutshell, not to study the world but to change it. Had he been given a university post then it is possible that now, 150 years on, none of us would ever have heard of Karl Marx. But he was not given such a post. Instead he became what we today would call an investigative journalist running a radical newspaper.
He had seen the results of ghettos and the cost of industrialization in Trier and the Rhineland. Grinding poverty, one quarter of the population living on nothing or civic handouts, and rife crime and prostitution.
In 1843 Marx married Jenny from an aristocratic Prussian family. In 1844 he met Friedrich Engels, who remained his friend and benefactor until Marx’s death. In 1849 Marx was expelled from the country of his birth, Germany, as a “stateless” person, which explains in part why he regarded himself as a citizen of the world. He went to live in London and from there produced his great book Capital, along with other books and the Communist Manifesto. He had six children, three of whom died in early childhood due to lack of money, medicine and food. At certain times the Marx family survived for weeks at a time on small quantities of bread and potatoes.
His friend Engels was not only a gifted writer but also a highly successful businessman, in the family cotton trade, based in Manchester. Engels bankrolled the Marx family during their years of poverty..
In fact, most years Marx earned up to three times the average workers wage, but he and his wife were notoriously bad managers with personal finances. Engels was the opposite. It is estimated that in his life Engels gave in today’s terms over 100,000 pounds sterling to Marx. Engels also wrote an expose of the horrors of conditions in Manchester, and, practised what he preached in terms of alleviating poverty through societal change.
In one of life’s strange ironies Marx managed to get a loan through his wife’s cousin, Lion Phillips. You will know his products today. Lion Phillips founded what has become the world’s biggest electronics manufacturers, Phillips.
That is far removed from life on the streets in the 1840s. In Manchester about 50% of children died before the age of five. Engels wrote that the mean streets were places of “masses of refuse, offal and sickening filth ... Hoards of ragged women and children swarm about here, as filthy as the swine that thrive upon the garbage heaps and in the puddles ... The race that lives in these ruinous cottages, behind broken windows, mended with oilskin, sprung doors and rotten doorposts, or in dark, wet cellars, in measureless filth and stench, in this atmosphere penned in as if with a purpose, this race must really have reached the lowest stage of humanity.”
It is no wonder that Marx was disgusted by the shameless exploitation of the capitalists. This is exactly the same feeling that William Blake had when he wrote of the dark, satanic mills. Blake’s prophecy called for Christ to walk upon England’s green and pleasant land.
Instead. Marx wrote “The workers have nothing to lose but their chains. They have a world to gain. Workers of the world, unite.”
Later on Marx formulated the classic formula of socialism: From each according to his abilities, to each according to his needs. He also denounced exploitation. Here in New Zealand in the 1880s and 1890s there was sweated labour, and one of the greats of the Presbyterian clergy Rutherford Waddell was instrumental in getting it stopped. When people tell me 'don’t preach about politics or political issues', I can only wonder if they read their Bibles. We won’t recognise God’s prophets in our time, if we haven’t seen God’s prophets at work in Bible times.
I put it to you that wherever poverty grinds the vast majority down, they will rally to the cause that can lift them up, raise their hopes, offer a new deal. That is why one of the greatest hymns of the Victorian era, How sweet the name of Jesus sounds in a believers ear, goes on to say that this same Jesus is God’s prophet as well as priest and king.
To return, however, to Amos and Marx, we know full well that their predictions did not all come true. Marx had no idea of the huge harm his form of communist production would do to the environment. And as we all know, Marx’s ideas about doing away with private property ownership were completely untenable. Just as the Methodist movement had found a hundred years before in working with the poor and lower middle class, those who saved and slaved their way up into the middle class, the bourgeoises, were never going to give it up.
Like Amos, Marx did not find acceptance as a prophet of justice in his own context. England ignored him. The English working class organized itself in ways that Marx did not appreciate. Marx was marginalized, just as Amos was.
Yet his writings were to come to become international: ‘workers of the world’ - exactly as Amos' prediction that God’s righteousness and justice were for all the nations.
Marx came to fame in 1917. Lenin used Marxist philosophy to offer the communist system after the bloody Russian revolution. Then Mao Tse Dong in China. And a host of others afterwards. All claiming to be the true followers of Marx. He found both fame and infamy decades after his death.
But well before he died, Marx was so disgusted by what his followers did, by the distortions of his philosophy, he cried out, “As for me, I am no Marxist.” This is similar to Carl Jung who stated on numerous occasions that he was no Jungian!
At heart Marx wanted to show a way in which all could live together to the disadvantage of none.
Now I haven’t stated anything new at all in terms of calling Marx a prophet of God. That description has been around for a long time. He spoke up with such a powerful analysis over terrible conditions, and his extraordinary genius showed how to apply it internationally. That is exactly what God raises prophets up to do. He raised up Amos for exactly that purpose. He raised up Marx also, despite Marx’s professed atheism. Read your Bibles and you will find God does this consistently, uses pagans to achieve purposes that people of faith might not be able to do.
I think this is one of the hardest yet most rewarding things for a Christian to understand. God works in ways that are not always the way we predict from our vantage point of faith.
Equally, the things Marx thought that would obviously come to pass never did. Likewise for Amos. His predictions of doom and gloom did not come to pass in his lifetime. Yet just as Amos did, Marx has left a legacy from which virtually everyone has benefited. People of faith and people without faith.
In summary then, what is clear is that his concerns and his analysis stem from both his Jewish background and his conversion to Christianity as a youth. Later on Marx was to become a brilliant historian and an extraordinary economist, although Kenan Malik would dispute this. (see the Which Book? | Book Club forums.) Yet he failed the prophets' test in both areas.
What is the Bible but the history of salvation, first for the Jewish nation, and then through Jesus Christ? Marx was overwhelmed by pity for the poor and the plight of children. What is our faith but God’s asking us, each of us, to do justice and walk humbly with our God. Marx did the first and paid a terrible price for it. He rejected the second - walking with God - but we may rightly conclude that was because others rejected the God-possibility in him as a brilliant young Jew. And the world paid the price for that prejudice in the rise of both Nazism and Stalinism.
So Marx rejected God. But it is clear that God did not reject Marx. Anyone who offers as much as a glass of water to the thirsty, gives a crust of bread to the hungry, works to alleviate suffering and pain and disease, God does not reject such as these.
Freud saw Marxism as just one more rationalization ignoring the real drives of the unconscious. Marxists saw Freud as fin de seicle Vien. Either way Marx did have the most profound effect on 20th century thought. The church, therefore should embrace him as one who travels with us, but use his analysis sparingly and cautiously.