Marxism and Christianity – again

As I mentioned earlier, I have just been at the Renmin University Summer Institute on Theology and the Humanities (in Beijing), where I was a keynote speaker. One of the many discussions I had (especially in response to my paper on Lenin and the Gospels) turned on the relationship between Marxism and Christianity. Three different questions made me think a bit more:

1. Is Marxism a secularised version of Christian (or indeed Jewish) history?

I have had a go at answering this one at the level of Marx’s texts in an article in Mediations. The short answer here is that Marx and Engels set themselves against the dominantly eschatological nature of communism at the time (Moses Hess et al). However, what about the oft-repeated opinion, first proposed by Karl Löwith early last century? At a general level, Marxism partakes of a historical narrative drawn originally from Jewish and Christian thought: this world is a fallen one, the messiah/saviour will come (the proletariat) and bring in the millennium and heaven on earth (communism). Apart from the fact that our dear Karl L. doesn’t actually work with any texts, this seems an obvious position to many.

This position has at least two problems. First, you may make the same point about any political and economic project: liberalism, feminism, anarchism, conservatism … at which point it becomes meaningless. Second, the whole argument assumes that Christian thought is the origin of this narrative and that everyone has borrowed it in various fashions. Crap, since that absolutises Christianity. Instead, the theological or biblical shape of this narrative is but one form it may take.

All the same, there is some connection between a Marxist theory of history and Christianity, but at an unexpected level. You find it in the forgotten pages on Max Stirner in The German Ideology, pages that constitute the engine room of historical materialism. In response to Stirner’s search for a lever of history – the ego, of which Christ is the model, minus the theological trappings – Marx and Engels develop a very different approach. The lever is not the proletariat but contradiction itself. The way modes of production crunch into other ones is through internal contradictions that eventually bring the older one undone. It is certainly a very different lever of history, but the question remains whether Marx and Engels actually develop something completely new. My sense is that they get halfway: contradiction is a novel lever of history, but it remains a lever.

2. How then do Marxism and Christianity relate?

Through the history of revolutions. Engels knew it, Kautsky knew it. Christianity has inspired and provided the mechanisms for one revolution after another before the modern period. Communism carries on the memory and practice of such revolutions, now in another key.

3. When will a Christian communist be found in China?

Apart from pointing out that I was there, however briefly, I referred to the work of a Chinese friend of mine (Chin Kenpa) who has discovered a group of Chinese Christian communists from the 1920s. The key is that they developed Christian communism without reference to work outside China and well before the ruptures of the 60s and 70s elsewhere. Here you have a distinctly Chinese contribution to the relations between Marxism and Christianity. Apart the publication of the Chinese version of their writings, we are also planning an English translation.

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9 thoughts on “Marxism and Christianity – again

  1. I was reading your comments on 1 & 2 and re-reading the Mediations article and the first thought that came to mind was Engels’ comparison of the revolutionary situations in Germany (15th and 19th centuries) in The Peasant War. In his critique of the revolution of 1848, Engels positively compares the revolutionary tradition of the peasant war. In comparison, he refers to much of what was for him a contemporary movement as enfeebled.

    It seems to me that any relationship would revolve less around the secularization of eschatology (as an event to come) but a realized eschatology (along the lines of liberation theology). In this sense, to keep with the peasant war, the rebellion itself, along with certain accomplishments, is a moment of realized eschatology that Marxism can productively engage.

    Just my first thoughts.

    1. Engels does that much more strongly and better in his late piece on early Christianity. But the one who introduced eschatology into Marxism in a big way is actually Ernst Bloch, one of my favourite writers.

      1. i do not disagree about Bloch (reading a solid chapter on him in a book published by Haymarket here in Chicago. I mentioned realized eschatology to differentiate it from the idea of a future in-breaking and as a sort of neutral ground on which to discuss Engel’s surmise about the German Peasant’s war. I did not intend to suggest that it was something Engels had introduced.

  2. John, I agree that Engels didn’t introduce it, but the realised eschatology line is an interesting one worth pursuing. Münzer was certainly working with a proleptic eschatology, sensing the breaking in of the new age here and now.

  3. Roland, I agree that Marxism and Christianity are related through the history of revolutions. But this begs the question: why does Christianity inspire revolutions? One answer is found in Bloch: utopia. Another is a radical history making/founding concept of irreducible ‘events’ as the basis for a new subjectivity and possibly collectivity.

    1. Actually, as I argue in ‘In the Vale of Tears’ (due out next year), one needs to engage in a materialist analysis of the conditions of Christianity in order to understand a profound political ambivalence at the heart of Christianity. Paul is key here, for he sets up an unfinished ideological transition from one mode of production to another, thereby enabling Christianity to become the religion of empire and the source of revolutionary opposition to empire.

      1. Looking forward to the read, Roland. Sounds excellent. I readily accept the need for a materialist analysis of the conditions of Christianity, and that Christianity is politically ambivalent. But why is the ideology related directly, so it seems in your view here, to a transition in modes of production? Why not an ideological relation to state power that may express itself in different modes of production – as happened for at least 1300 years before a capitalist mode of production began making itself felt? Am I misunderstanding your use of mode of production? Or are you drawing an ideological arc over the course of the longue duree? Or are you agreeing with Weber? Or am I missing something!? I fully understand that 2 sentence blog posts can’t say everything…

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