Marx on Religion & its Role in Oppression (Part 2)

Did Disillusion Foster More Illusions?

Criticizing Marx on particulars is relatively easy, especially since there has been a considerable expanse of time between his writings and the current social, economic and political climates. It becomes easier yet when using proof-texts upon which to base the critique, as opposed to performing a broad study of Marx’s ideas. The latter would obviously be outside the scope of this paper. While further criticisms will undoubtedly develop, it would be appropriate to concentrate largely on integrating the three subjects previously discussed into a dialogue that may be useful to the very people that Marx wrote against – capitalists and Christians.

Marx was undoubtedly a reductionist, as were other geniuses of their times, such as Nietzsche and Freud. When other people take a body of work of this nature and further reduce it to suit their needs, the resulting popularized snippets of philosophy that remain may only be understandable in terms of strictly black or white, right or wrong, pro or con. It is beneficial to resist the urge to particularize Marx’s words, and to look at them under a wide-angle lens instead – to consider elements of his philosophy as broad strokes painted on the canvas of an existing culture – and then to determine the usefulness of his ideas on current society. In this way, it is of value to avoid trying to categorize his thoughts as purely descriptive or prescriptive. Both apply, as does a third – Marx may have been prognosticative as well. Did Marx describe accurately what was? Not entirely. Did he prescribe the best course of action – what ought to be? If history tells truths, hardly! Of course, it could be easily argued that Marx’s ideas have yet to be tried in a manner of which he would have approved. Did Marx, however, describe situations that were yet to occur? If he did, there will still be value in his ideas for society in general and the church in particular.

“The old hereditary aristocracy, reinforced by the new gentry who owed their success to commerce, industry, and the professions, evolved into an “upper class” which tenaciously maintained control over the political system, depriving not only the working classes but the middle classes of a voice in the political process. The working classes, however, remained shut out from the political process, and became increasingly hostile not only to the aristocracy but to the middle classes as well. As the Industrial Revolution progressed there was further social stratification. Capitalists, for example, employed industrial workers who were one component of the working classes (each class included a wide range of occupations of varying status and income; there was a large gap, for example, between skilled and unskilled labor), but beneath the industrial workers was a submerged “under class”– contemporaries referred to them as the “sunken people”– which lived in poverty. In mid-century skilled workers had acquired enough power to enable them to establish Trade Unions (Socialism became an increasingly important political force) which they used to further improve their status, while unskilled workers and the underclass beneath them remained much more susceptible to exploitation, and were therefore exploited.”[i]

Marx wrote within a culture that was disillusioned – at least the impoverished majority of the culture. The early decades following the Industrial Revolution were resounding successes for some, none-events for some others, and spirit-killing periods of despair and hopelessness for many. Marx’s division of early to mid-nineteenth century society into two castes was far from accurate. Old-line aristocracy was still in existence and, to some extent, competing for social acceptance with the new gentry formed from the successful capitalists. There were levels below these of merchants and skilled workers who still had valuable roles and good incomes from their endeavors. While these players in the economic game were by no means equal or even friendly to each other, they were all lumped into Marx’s ‘bourgeoisie’. The remainder, unskilled labor or the proletariat, were the next to the last rung on the social ladder best categorized as the working poor. Below them were the lowest of the low – the unemployed or unemployable. Most of these two latter groups had good reason to be bitter. Many had left lives of abject poverty in rural areas to pursue hope and meaningful employment in the cities. The Industrial Revolution reconstituted the populations of Europe from largely rural to primarily urban. Rural poor, while having lives of little pleasure, could at least feed themselves to some degree by their own efforts. Being poor in the city, however, left little room for individual effort to provide for a family. The trappings of poverty were squalor, disease, hunger, filth and crime, which were all the more obvious when compared to the trappings of success a few blocks away.

The problem with the Industrial Revolution was not so much the impoverishment of the lowest classes, but the increased knowledge of their impoverishment that became obvious in the urban environment. The poor gained the knowledge of just how poor they were – not in comparison to occasional rural aristocrats, but in contrast to the static, but comfortable, circumstances of the middle-classes and the opulent surroundings of the upper classes. Attempts by the poor to establish extra-legal economies, similar to those found in rural areas where one necessity was traded for another, were thwarted by the upper class controlled governments which passed laws that were unabashedly anti-lower class. These laws primarily limited trade on Sundays, which happened to be the only days that the working poor was free to engage in activities other than their employment. The fact that these laws were promoted by the churches was lost on neither the poor nor Marx.

Religion played various roles in the development of capitalism, which is not surprising considering how the church functioned in the systems of slavery, colonialism, feudalism and virtually all other forms of European oppression. The church, in fact, modeled a similar stratified hierarchy that the secular world portrayed. While admittedly having its internal critics, the church learned, from the time of Constantine, to keep itself largely in the good graces of the powerful. With the development of Protestantism in Germany under Luther, followed by Calvinism in Geneva, came a renewed alliance with the rich and powerful. To whatever extent Calvin may have rolled over in his grave, by the beginning of the nineteenth century material wealth has to some degree become equated with God’s grace. R.J. Kilcullen wrote:

“…Calvinism, with its doctrine of predestination – i.e. the doctrine that God eternally decreed the salvation of some and the damnation of others, not in view of the good or evil deeds they would do, but simply ‘because he willed it’ – that this doctrine made Calvinists anxious about their salvation; that this led them to seek reassurance in attempting to succeed in their economic (and other) undertakings, in the belief that God signifies his favour by giving prosperity to the undertakings of the elect; at the same time the Calvinist did not spend his money on self-indulgence, so had nothing else to do with it but plough it back into the business. And his employees, being Calvinists also, had a sense of their jobs as ‘callings’ to be done well out of religious duty even for small earthly reward. Hence the ‘Protestant ethic’ – the famous ‘work ethic’ -, the drive for economic success, the will to work hard, the habit of not spending on frivolous self-indulgence – all this, originating in theology, provided a ‘spirit’ for capitalism, the set of motivations and attitudes that led to ‘rational investment’ of profits continually ploughed back, and to the modern world.”[ii]

Protestantism had become rigid by this point in history. Its concentration on the otherworldly mitigation of suffering in this world, and its tendency to view God’s grace as being manifest in the apparent conditions of human life, set aside religion’s role as bringing hope and change to the suffering here and now. Within this same climate, albeit several decades earlier due to England’s head start in the Industrial Revolution, Methodism was born out of the conviction that Christian faith should manifest itself in human kindness and social concern. By this time, however, Methodists had not had a huge effect in England, never mind mainland Europe.

            Along with Christianity’s apparent lack of social ethic, capitalism veered in such a way that it did not live up to its more noble intentions either. Within the same quote above is gleaned some basic economic tenets of Calvinism. Profits were to be reinvested. Why? To build up businesses, and provide capital for new endeavors, so that more jobs would be created. Self-indulgence was not a respected practice in early Calvinism. Why? A godly life was demonstrated in austerity. The difference between wealthy and poor, while evident, were not as striking in Calvin’s Geneva as in later European cultures. Being a theocracy meant that high employment levels, rigid social rules, and a mandate to live almost ascetic lifestyles brought glory to God and demonstrated to the world the efficacy of Calvin’s theology.[iii] At what point did capitalism develop and deviate from this system of government and economics?

             Capitalism by definition is an economic system in which the means of production and distribution are privately or corporately owned and development is proportionate to the accumulation and reinvestment of profits gained in a free market. While capitalism had its roots much earlier in history, Adam Smith developed the term and most of the economic philosophies in 1778.

“Adam Smith’s theory of economics established capitalism as the only moral economic system; his economic theories were born of his moral philosophy. He believed man to be basically self-interested, though capable of relating to others through sympathy. Smith’s theory of economics developed from his ideas regarding the proper relations among men. As each person had a right to the product of their work, they also had a right to keep or trade it as they saw fit … through capitalism and free trade, each transaction benefits each participant, while no one trades value for non-value, and no one demands what belongs to another, because people can sympathize with others. Smith points out the mutual benefit to city dwellers and farmers of trading manufactured goods for produce or money for either and other detailed examples of the mechanisms of capitalism in his 1778 work The Wealth of Nations.”[iv]

Smith’s moral philosophy called for capitalism to develop into a socio-economic justice system, alleviating not accentuating class economic discrepancies. There are three “impossibilities” inherent to this system:  it is impossible for capitalism to exist unless land rent is acknowledged to be proper and is paid; it is impossible for capitalism to exist if interest is not paid on borrowed money; and it is impossible for capitalism to exist if profits cannot be made. In that sense capitalism is inextricably tied up with what Marx called injustice.

Hernando de Soto, in The Mystery of Capital, helps to bring some light to what went wrong in the history of capitalism. De Soto examined most of the attempts to bring capitalism to third world countries during the twentieth century to see if a basic mystery can be solved – why does capitalism thrive in the west, predominantly the U.S., while generally failing elsewhere? His work in this area, while necessitating the taking of considerable license, may shed some light on why Marx determined capitalism, as it was generally practiced in Europe, to be the great evil.

To shorten, and therefore to do some injustice to, de Soto’s remarkable work will require some leaps to his findings without the benefit of his erudite preliminary explanations. The mystery of capital that causes the primary difference between North American and third world capitalism is ownership. Hmmm, seems too simple. Actually it is. The difference is really in the systematic recording of property ownership rights. De Soto found that in every instance of failed economic attempts in the third world there was a corresponding legal prohibition, or prohibitively complicated process, against ownership of property by the general citizenry. He concluded, quite simply, that without ownership rights of real property for the general populace, capitalism will fail and be replaced by a form of economic dictatorship. Why? Because capital is the realization of additional value, over and above the actual value of property or buildings, that can be realized by the use of the abstract notion of property.[v] The abstraction, just as in the document (abstract) that every property owner in the U.S. has, is the legal description of the real property owned that serves as both a description and legal identification of ownership. This method of recognizing property rights is limited to North America, Australia, much of Europe and some other developed countries. Only where this process is in place, does capitalism succeed. The U.S. system is modeled after the English system, which is also widely used in Europe.

How, then, does this explain the problems with early capitalism? Capitalism followed closely on the heels of feudalism in which the general populace did not own land. When Calvin’s system began, and with each subsequent development towards capitalism, land ownership did not change drastically. With the concentration of populations moving into cities from rural areas came an increase in the number of families who owned no land and, therefore, could not compete in a capitalist market. In the U.S. the trend was the opposite. European emigrant populations entered the U.S. and, after initially settling in cities and experiencing the same squalor as in Europe, moved outward to rural areas. New communities developed quickly in the settled areas and eventually became urban in their own right, but with a basic difference – more of the property contained within the urban limits was owned privately. Land ownership became more broad-based faster in America than in Europe, and has remained more widespread to this day.

The churches, specifically the Roman Catholic Church and the Church of England among others, played significant roles in the restriction of land ownership. These institutions owned and controlled large tracts of urban land and buildings, much of them slums. When the churches divested themselves of this land in the mid to late 1800’s and early 1900’s, it was sold in large tracts to gentry, thereby continuing the blockage to ownership of real property.

Within this framework, and considering the ways in which Marx missed the target, where and how can we find value in his ideas?

 To be continued or go to Table of Contents

[i] Cody, David, Associate Professor of English, Hartwick College, “Social Class”, The Victorian Web home page,  <http://www.scholars.nus.edu.sg/victorian/history/Class.html&gt; accessed 12/2/02.

[ii] Kilcullen, R.J., “Max Weber: On Capitalism” – 1996, Modern Political Theory web page, Macquarie University (Australia) home page, <http://www.humanities.mq.edu.au/Ockham/y64l10.html&gt; accessed 12/3/02.

[iii]Micheloud & Cie, “John Calvin”, Rough Guide to Switzerland web site, Switzerland is Yours home page, <http://switzerland.isyours.com/e/guide/religion/christianism/john.calvin.html&gt; accessed 12/9/02.

[iv] Gidal, Prof. Eric, Instructor, “Adam Smith’s Views of Capitalism”, Society of the Spectacle class web page, University of Iowa home page, <http://twist.lib.uiowa.edu/spectacle/Class%20Hypertext/class_hypertext.htm&gt; accessed 12/9/02.

[v] de Soto, Hernando, The Mystery of Capital, New York: Basic Books, 2000. (p. 47)


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... or, preaching from both ends


That's too bad - I'm so sorry. Oh, well, just try to make the best of it. What you'll find here is a variety of essays and ramblings to do with things theological, social, whimsical and, sometimes, all three. I don't write to get famous - trust me, I've been told how futile that would be - but to express myself. I love to communicate and browbeat - ummm, I mean dialogue - about the things I find intriguing. Since you're here, and the door's locked, why don't you stay a while. There's a page bar under the header with links to information about us - I mean me. Don't forget to tell me what you think - in a nice way, I mean.

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