It is uncommon to find an movement of revolt in the present age, which claims to stand for the poor and underprivileged, that is not somehow influenced by the ideology set forth by Karl Marx. The orthodox view and the more common contemporary view of Catholic social justice differ in that, without admitting it, the latter perceives Marxism as a primary means to its end. Many a progressive Catholic educator has attempted to indoctrinate his students with the notion that communism, in its ideal form, is the true embodiment of the Gospel message.
It has also been stated that the failure of the Soviet Union to sustain itself in the long run was due to its deviation from real Marxist principles. So with all this in mind, what was the original intent of Karl Marx, and how does it look in the light of Catholic truth?
In his book “Dynamics of World History”, Christopher Dawson wrote a brilliant chapter called “Karl Marx and the Dialectic of History”. This essay contains the most lucid evaluation of the Marxist ideology, from a Catholic perspective, that I have ever encountered. Citing the inheritance of his revolutionary ideas from his Jewish background, Dawson writes:
The three fundamental elements in the Jewish historical attitude: – the opposition between the chosen people and the Gentile world, the inexorable divine judgment on the latter and the restoration of the former in the Messianic kingdom – all found their corresponding principles in the revolutionary faith of Karl Marx. Thus the bourgeois took the place of the Gentiles and the economic poor – the proletariat – took the place of the spiritual poor of the Old Testament.
In the same way the approaching cataclysm of social revolution which was brought about not by human power and will, but by the immanent dialectic of history, corresponds to the Day of Jahweh and the judgment of the Gentiles; while the Messianic Kingdom finds an obvious parallel in the dictatorship of the proletariat which will reign till it has put down all rule and authority and power and in the end will deliver up its kingdom to the classless and stateless society of the future which will be all in all.
The “dialectic of history” mentioned by Dawson is the hallmark of the Marxist vision of reality. According to Marx, history is set in motion by the the struggle of opposing forces. Like the tipping of a scale, an accumulation of quantitative changes results in a sweeping qualitative transformation. The negations of negations of successive qualitative changes drive the upward spiral of progress. Leon Trotsky nicely explains this worldview in his essay “The ABC’s of Materialist Dialectics”:
We call our dialectic materialist, since its roots are neither in heaven nor in the depths of our ‘free will’, but in objective reality, in nature. Consciousness grew out of the unconscious, psychology out of physiology, the organic world out of the inorganic, the solar system out of the nebulae. On all the rungs of this ladder of development, the quantitative changes were transformed into qualitative. Our thought, including dialectical thought, is only one of the forms of the expression of changing matter. There is place within this system for neither God nor Devil, nor immortal soul, nor eternal norms of laws and morals. The dialectic of thinking, having grown out of the dialectic of nature, possess consequently a thoroughly materialist character.
Spiritual consciousness and human nature are fully replaced by forces of production, capital resources, and material circumstances, producing “the most thoroughgoing system of historic materialism that has ever been invented” (Dawson). Jacques Maritain reveals his suspicion of this view through his own characterization of it (book “Scholasticism and Politics”, chapter “Science and Philosophy”):
But what I should like to note here is the typical procedure of dialectical materialism: this consists, not merely in recognizing the importance of history, but in using the history of a thing, first, in order to juggle away the nature of the thing, and then to explain the thing by replacing it by its history.
Apart from mutual antipathy in struggle and the coincidence of opposites, history would cease to exist, along with the reality begotten by it. Because existence itself hangs on this dialectic, Marx emphasizes the need for animosity directed by the ever-growing poor and working class against the upper class to achieve the revolution that embodies the final dialectical swing: the dictatorship of the proletariat.
When, in the course of development, class distinctions have disappeared, and all production has been concentrated in the hands of a vast association of the whole nation, the public power will lose its political character. Political power, properly so called, is merely the organised power of one class for oppressing another. If the proletariat during its contest with the bourgeoisie is compelled, by the force of circumstances, to organise itself as a class, if, by means of a revolution, it makes itself the ruling class, and, as such, sweeps away by force the old conditions of production, then it will, along with these conditions, have swept away the conditions for the existence of class antagonisms and of classes generally, and will thereby have abolished its own supremacy as a class.
In place of the old bourgeois society, with its classes and class antagonisms, we shall have an association, in which the free development of each is the condition for the free development of all.
(Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, “The Communist Manifesto”, Chapter Two)
In seeking above all else to achieve this classless utopia, as Dawson points out, Marx defeats his own philosophical construct. The Marxist apocalyptic wins out over the Marxist philosophy. An ideal world is to be achieved in which all human conflict will be rendered obselete, and by the Marxist philosophy of dialecticism, history itself will cease. The absolute good of society, which is abolished by the Marxist philosophical worldview, becomes the cornerstone of the final solution of communism.
Henri de Lubac poignantly objects in his book “The Drama of Atheist Humanism” (chapter “The Search for a New Man”):
A perfect peace, a perfect harmony, a total reciprocity of consciousness, without the insertion of any new principle in this humanity, which will not have ceased until then to misunderstand and to tear itself to pieces! Has Christianity ever asked such an abdication of the mind? On which side are the miracles the most unbelievable?
A long and particularly revealing passage in Dawson’s essay places the vision of Marx before the judgment seat:
As soon as Marx turns to action all his philosophy goes by the board and he adopts the naive absolutism of the fanatic. The exploitation of the proletariat arouses a genuinely moral indignation: he regards it not as a necessary phase in economic evolution, but as a sin that cries to heaven for vengeance. The cause of the proletariat is the cause of social justice in the most absolute sense. It is a cause for which the Communist is ready to suffer and die and to cause the suffering and death of others. All this is the fruit not of his philosophy or of his materialism but of the underlying religious impulse which finds expression in the revolutionary apocalyptic. It is a spiritual passion which has lost its theological object and has attempted to find independent justification in a purely rational theory. And the intrusion of this spiritual force falsifies Marx’s whole theory by imparting to it an absolutism that is foreign to its real nature. Thus his historical relativism becomes contaminated by an apocalyptic determinism – a doctrine of the End of History, – and his ethical relativism passes away before a Puritanical regorism of a strictly dualist type. And this is why Marxism is characterized by a certain inhumanity which does not belong either to the religious apocalyptic tradition or to rationalism but which arises from the union of intense apocalyptic convictions with a materialist philosophy.
In conclusion, one should be wary of any system that proposes to solve the greatest problems of humanity while disregarding the “immense burden of inherited evil” (Dawson, “Essay on War”) plaguing every age. When God is thrown out, strange and ultimately irrational constructs rush in to fill the vacuum. Thus it is essential to evaluate all new ideas in the light of reason, and fortunately our recent Church leadership has delivered the truth in spades.
Whence comes the view of “good” to which a given system aspires, and what authority lies behind this view? What is the nature of the human person? Honest answers to these two questions will go a long way toward achieving an understanding of how the implementation of any system that seeks to redeem humanity will truly play out.