Mulhall column: The gymnastic faith of Marxism
While in graduate school at University of London, I roomed in Connaught Hall, a Georgian structure on Tavistock Square, best known now as one of the sites in the 7-7 bombings.
On that day in 2005, a terrorist detonated a bomb that peeled the top off a London double decker and killed 13 on the Woburn side of the square. At the center of the square, no more than a stone’s throw away from the explosion site, sits the statue of a meditative Mohandas Gandhi, father of satyagraha.
Back in ’86, however, the 7-7 bombings were a far-off reality, so Gandhi’s statue was less interesting to me than the fact that members of the Bloomsbury Group, including Virginia Woolf, E.M. Forster, Lytton Strachey and the economist John Maynard Keynes, once lived just across the Connaught Hall gardens on Gordon Square.
As an economist, Keynes proffered the idea of economic stimulation through government spending — even when you lack capital. Keynes’ ideas served as the economic foundation of FDR’s New Deal.
If the Keynesian idea of spending money you don’t have sounds dodgy, what could be worse? The idea of spending someone else’s money, for one, and for this we need look no farther than the Orwellian monument in London’s Highgate Cemetery marking the grave of Karl Marx. Yet this is not the apotheosis of bad ideas offered by Marx. There is at least one other.
In volume I of “Das Kapital,” Marx analyzes economics in terms of human labor and paints a picture of a life in which God is incidental.
“Darwin has interested us in the history of Nature’s Technology, i.e., in the formation of the organs of plants and animals, which organs serve as instruments of production for sustaining life. … Every history of religion, even, that fails to take account of this material basis, is uncritical. It is, in reality, much easier to discover by analysis the earthly core of the misty creations of religion, than, conversely, it is, to develop from the actual relations of life the corresponding celestialised forms of those relations …”
— Karl Marx, “Das Kapital,” Chapter 15, footnote 4, excerpt
This footnote is a good example of a central theme in “Das Kapital,” namely that Charles Darwin’s observations delegitimize religion. While Darwin himself never made this leap, this footnote reveals Marx’s hand. He was not just marshaling Darwin’s popularity at the time to lend credibility to his economic theory but also marginalizing religious accounts of creation and life as simplistic compared to any scientific inquiry.
Marx’s “Das Kapital” depicts a life that is, if not wholly void of God, an existence in which God and religion are superfluous. It’s a tall order to make the idea of spending other people’s money frivolous, but Marx pulled it off by marginalizing religion, and in doing so helped kick the door open for secularism.
The secularism Marx helped usher in involves a conceit that people are just fine without God. You see this in the contemporary interpretation of the phrase “separation of church and state” — if God does not exist, governance should be void of religion.
“It’s OK to believe that religious BS,” a person might say, “as long as I don’t hear it at city council.” This position is an intellectual gymnastic that uses the Constitution for soft landing. The First Amendment protects a person’s belief in no god, but it is not an aural prophylactic that protects against hearing a person who believes in God, in any forum.
Among the many objections to religion is determinism — simply, if you live a life according to teachings of this or that book, you end up in a good place when you perish, or some similar narrative. Believers accept such determinist narratives on faith, but to many, this stance is specious because, among many reasons, there is no scientific evidence for it.
Marx departed from Darwin in an important way — Darwin observed life and drew conclusions that evolution had occurred and would likely occur in the future. Darwin did not, however, profess to know the changes evolution would portend. He did not know which biological characteristics of a species would survive, nor which species might go extinct, and he was apparently quite content in not guessing.
Marx was not so constrained. In “Das Kapital,” Marx predicts that in advanced economies, capitalism will eventually collapse under the “alienation” of the bourgeoisie, the owners of the means of production, and the proletariat, or labor class. Socialism might then emerge, depending on how the collapse occurs.
A peaceful collapse might require several generations of socialism to mollify tensions, while a violent collapse, in which the bourgeoisie are dispatched, would shorten socialism’s duration, if not avoid it altogether. In either case, through democratic planning, production would be redirected from bourgeois profit to proletariat need, and in time, tension would dissipate. The absence of tension and attainment of material and economic equanimity, Marx theorized, signaled communism’s arrival.
Some who embrace this deterministic narrative do so as eagerly as they dismiss religion’s, even though as with religion, accepting Marxism requires faith.
Mitch Mulhall is a husband, father and longtime valley resident. His column appears on the second Friday of each month.
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