In my daily read recently I came across an essay written by David Pederson, "How (Not) to Understand Marx," here on Ethika Politika. His core argument was that intellectuals and nonintellectuals alike in their criticism of communism and Marxism fail to actually understand, first, Marx’s actual words, second, the quality of Marx’s writing, third, the “correct” way to understand Marx, and lastly, whether a Catholic can be a Marxist at all.
It is certainly commendable to attempt to get other scholars to approach an author without too heavy of a preconceived filter. However, in my own reading of Marx, I think it is easy to demonstrate that not only are all of Mr. Pederson’s arguments incorrect, but they also may be slightly naïve. While I must confess that he does seem better read in the secondary literature, I argue that Marx’s own words are clear enough to counter his central arguments.
First, I reject the idea that Marx has been misunderstood or taken out of the context from which he was writing or that his important ideas are not the ones being addressed (and by extension criticized). Mr. Pederson writes,
Whether Marx was “empirically wrong” on all of his core assumptions, I will leave to one side—not only because (a) that’s a contested point, (b) capitalism has developed in ways that Marx couldn’t foresee, and (c) I don’t know the relevant empirical details, but also mainly because it’s irrelevant to the most important insights in Marx’s thought.
Unfortunately, we cannot leave to one side this major point because it is rather important. But first, a little history: Karl Marx, at his peak, was writing in an attempt to effect radical, global change, not only economically but politically throughout the civilized world. His political agitation in France for an urban worker’s revolution led to the forced suppression of his newspapers and supporters. Marx himself had to flee or was exiled. This process repeated itself in Belgium and Germany. He finally settled in London where he lived the rest of his life.
From London, he produced the majority of his longer essays and books for which he is known today. From the beginning of his agitation until his death, the character of Marx’s writings were always political in their end. They were always making an argument for what is the best way of life. For Marx, it was always about the dynamics of class and control of material and production.
Therefore, to say that one does not know the relevant details, but that they are not important because you do not know them is a little circular in reasoning. If Marx was wrong about his conclusions about the future nature of Capitalism, then Marx’s thought is flawed. It is not contingent upon the reader to make excuses or modifications in the thought of Marx and still claim it as having been Marx’s thought.
Mr. Pederson goes on to say,
What most critics of Marx—paradigmatically Eugen Böhm-Bawerk—simply fail to recognize is that he is engaging in a fundamentally different type of inquiry than "economists" are.
This is true. Marx was not just interested in the flow of capital but rather how changing the flow of capital would lead to changes in politics. This was because Marx believed not only that human nature was not individualistic, but—like Hegel—that humanity was most human when it suppressed its individuality for the sake of the collective.
The overwhelming issue at stake here is this: Humans cannot suppress their individuality because they have a particular end. Marx would argue that while an individual may feel this way, it is only because class structures are pushing him to feel this way and that, by the way, he is also oppressed by the bourgeoisie.
Another element that is absolutely critical to the thought of Marx is the need for violent revolution not only as a method of bringing about the end of history and the utopian paradise, but also as a didactic tool for future generations. This crudeness is not particular to Lenin, Stalin, Mao and the rest. It is what essentially separates Marxism from Socialism.
Hegelian socialism assumes a peaceful, gradual transition from one phase of history to another brought about by legislation and education. In Hegel’s Philosophy of History, he states that co-opting Christians in this effort will be key in bringing about greater spiritual (social) consciousness. Hegel also goes on to say that eventually, the Church would simply become an apparatus for the state and eventually disappear as well.
On the other hand, no such peaceful solution can work for Marx. For him, the revolution cannot end, because humans die and new ones must be given their class consciousness. It is for this reason that a Christian cannot be a communist and remain faithful to the teachings of Christ.
I must confess that I lack the wealth of knowledge that Mr. Pederson has on the secondary literature when it comes to issuing the correct interpretation of Marxism. However, I have always held that political philosophy is best tested in the real world when the theory becomes praxis. And I think that it is no accident that every single attempt at establishing a Marxist state has failed spectacularly. In each case, revolutionaries have followed the path set out for them by Marx, overturned, exiled, reeducated, or killed their bourgeoisie masters and attempted to bring about a Communist utopia. And in each case, this has failed. The revolutionary process has stagnated or reversed.
Why? The core reason that Marxism has failed is because Marx himself did not understand that human nature is not malleable. It has an end; and for a Christian, that end is God. Marxism by its very nature presupposes that humanity is God. But humanity, fallen in its nature, can only struggle towards perfection. It can never achieve it.
For this reason, no Christian communist movement has ever survived in the long term, because (to borrow a Marxist phrase) its internal contradictions have time and again brought it down and away from either Christianity (as in liberation theology) or from communism (interestingly enough as in other liberation theologians).
It was for this reason that Jean Jacques Maritain condemned communism as being fundamentally inconsistent with Catholicism. Socialism presupposes as its end the dissolution of barriers between individuals, including those of the family and religion. For this reason, communism is always atheistic, because it, just as socialism, presupposes that the end of all men is to serve other men for the sake of man, not God.