I am a sassy dancer-man & hence I consider myself a connoisseur of sass. So I prefer to pass my time online by reading only the brassiest of the brazen. It was only a matter of time, then, before I got hooked on Jacobin, a new Marxist e-magazine. In one article they demolish New Atheism by revealing it to be a political tool used to justify Western imperialism.
I love it when philosophy becomes a battering ram; when arrogant “Enlightened” experts are reduced to non-sense, or when we realize that even the most basic concepts in our thoughts and imaginations are instruments used to oppress us. Marxists are usually among the best at both deconstructing everything the Enlightened hold dear and using philosophy to raise hell, so reading Marxist critiques of our mediocre-to-the-point-of-oppressive culture is like reading a candy catalogue to me. The sound of Western secularity ripping itself to shreds – like Marxists besieging New Atheists – makes very pretty music.
But as much as I love that distinctly unapologetic snark Marxists use to embarrass their rivals, and as sympathetic as I am to their concern for the oppressed, I don’t think I could ever be a Marxist. One of their recent articles gives me the perfect opportunity to explain why. Consider this excerpt – which a Jacobin contributor recently commentated on HERE – from Karl Kautsky’s Communism in Central Europe at the Time of the Reformation. You should go and read the entire article, but here’s a summary of Kautsky’s thoughts:
1) Once upon a time there was the terrible Dark Ages, and there was a bourgeoisie Catholic hierarchy which was oppressing the (proletariat) using false dogma to preserve their power and stifle progress.
2) It wasn’t until the Bible became available to the people that we begin to see any sort of truth (in the form of communist political thought) and this marks the rise out of the Dark Ages into an age of progress (secularity)
3) We see early traces of (communism) – the first hints of (rational progress) – in the groups condemned by the Medieval Vatican as “heretical”
Here’s what strikes me as odd; this is the same story Protestants often tell us about Medieval times. In fact, replace a few words & I can guarantee any evangelical or Baptist has heard this:
1) Once upon a time there was the terrible Dark Ages, and there was an (unbiblical) Catholic hierarchy which was oppressing the (true church) using false dogma to preserve their power and stifle progress
2) It wasn’t until the Bible became available to the people that we begin to see any sort of truth (in the form of sola fide – salvation by faith alone) and this marks the rise out of the Dark Ages into an age of progress (the Reformation)
3) We see early traces of (sola fide) – the first hints of (rejecting works-based salvation) – in groups condemned by the Medieval Vatican as “heretical”
The stories are too similar to be a coincidence; my bet is that Kautsky and his disciples, like all of Modernity since Descartes and the Enlightenment in the 17th century, have accepted the story that the Protestant Reformers have been telling about history, and are simply riffing off of it. For Kautsky’s view of history to work – the Medieval period had to be universally abysmal – a cesspool of violence, mental enslavement, and power-hungry popes. But lately historians have started to realize that this view of Medieval times might have been Reformer propaganda all along.
In a later section, Kautsky writes:
Since the time of the early Christians, the communists have always, and under all circumstances, laid stress on the duties of international and interlocal solidarity… they are in the first line of combatants against exploitation and oppression, and, in every place, they encounter the same opponents, and suffer from the same persecution. This it is which welds them together. From the days of early Christendom there has always been one special peculiarity among communists: that they form one all-embracing family, that the foreign comrade is just as much a brother as the native born; and that, in whatever part of the world he may happen to be, if he finds comrades he is at home.
Thanks to this peculiarity and to the lack of possessions, it was easy for their leaders, their agitators, to go from place to place. Poor they always were, for the man of property who joined them was obliged to distribute his means among the needy. The protagonists of the sect were constantly travelling, sometimes displaying a power of locomotion and covering an extent of ground in their journeys which would be quite respectable even in these days of railways. Thus, for example, the Waldenses of Bohemia were by this means able to keep up a constant communication with those of Southern France.
For this reason, communists became of the greatest importance in the conjoint revolutionary movements of the lower classes of their time. The greatest check to their progress was the local narrow-mindedness of the peasantry and petty citizens, which did them enormous injury in the face of their well-organized enemies.
Wherever this narrow-mindedness was conquered and revolutionary risings in isolated localities were brought into communication with each other, it was essentially the work of the communist wandering preachers…
And I giggled when I read it. Because Kautsky has just tried to turn communism into Christianity. According to Kautsky, communism is an endlessly persecuted belief, driven by its love for humanity that transcends all boundaries, hoping to create a universal friendship between all people. But notice that this is what Christianity claimed to be doing since 34 AD. Kautsky not only takes his history from the Christian Reformers, but he also borrows goals from Christianity as well. He thinks of communism like Christians think of Christianity.
Except Kautsky doesn’t believe Christians ever actually fulfilled these noble goals: Marx, from the beginning, called Christianity “opium for the masses” – a tool for the rich to make the poor docile. And we just read (so the story goes) that for at least the entire Medieval period – a whole millennia (500 AD – 1500 AD) Christians used their power to oppress everyone. I get the sense from reading Kautsky that his form of communism is less a secular upheaval and more like another reformation of the Reformation. Kautsky’s communism sounds much more like another Protestant denomination splitting off and “reforming” into what it considers to be “the true church”, except this reformation knows that God is dead and that Christians are the most depraved rulers. This makes for a curious form of secular communism, and I think most Marxists would agree with me here. Yet they borrow the same history and the same ideals from Christianity as well. So perhaps there is some truth in thinking of communism and Marxism as a kind of “secularized Christianity”. “Concern for the poor? That’s just watered-down Christianity!” As I once heard a disciple of Nietzsche stick it to a disciple of Marx.
This brings up a number of questions:
1) If the Protestant view of history is used by Marxists and atheists to outright dismiss Christianity as altogether evil and oppressive, shouldn’t Protestants reconsider how glibly y’all recite that story almost verbatim?
2) If Kautsky stands for many communists when he envisions Marxism as the universal (secular) bond of friendship which will unite all of humanity and free us from Christianity’s tyranny, then shouldn’t Christians view Marxism as an arch-rival? And if it is borrowing Christian moral ideals, might it even be a competing religion which has budded off from Christianity, like Mormonism or whatever you call Joel Osteen’s church? But if it is, then why has there been such an explosion of attempts to combine Christianity with Marxism (like liberation theology)? Why do so many evangelicals consider it hip to be a communist or socialist supporter? Such attempts wouldn’t be much different from trying to synthesize Christianity and Mormonism, which I suspect would sound much more scandalous to everyone involved.
3) We now see both communists and Christians claiming to suffer endless persecution in order to bring universal love and friendship to humanity. Both claim their message is the only true one, and both claim to suffer persecution for it. But who is lying? They can’t both be right, and both could be wrong. Who is worthy of our trust and allegiance?
So while I always look forward to reading Marxists, primarily because we both despise the complacency of modern culture and both think lots of popular philosophy is bunk, there are certain friction points between Marxism and Christianity which will always be at war. Marxism is attractive because Christianity apparently failed to practice what it preached. It claims to do everything Christians wanted to, except Marxists supposedly do it better and without the need of false religions. Conversely, Christians have typically been the primary foes of Marxism and communism. The underground Chinese Christians versus the Chinese communist government is today’s perfect example of this war.