Karl Marx, for good or bad, was one of the most influential thinkers of the 19th century. His work on such things as conflict theory, class warfare, and the goal of communism has shaped the thinking of billions. But influence alone cannot dictate the worthiness of ideas. His theories must be judged by history and He who judges history.
Below is a brief look at Karl Marx’s life, his views on Conflict Theory, and what the Bible says about good society. I have contracted the portion of this blog about his life story since it is a little long. But feel free to expand and take a peak – it is not crucial to this post but worth a read to get a better understanding of the man.
(large portions of the quick biography were inspired by Spartacus Educational, History Guide, and Biography)
Karl Marx was born in 1818 to Heinrich and Henrietta Marx in Trier, Prussia. He was one of nine children. Karl Marx came from a long rabbinical line on both sides of his family. But due to a 1815 law banning Jews from high society, his father had agreed to be baptized into the Protestant faith so as to retain his career as one of the most respected lawyers in Trier. His father also changed his name from Hirschel to Heinrich.
Marx entered Bonn University to study law like his father. While there, he spent much time socializing and accruing large debts. His father, upon learning that Karl had been wounded in a duel, agreed to pay off his son’s debts but insisted that he move to Berlin University. The move proved to be good for Karl Marx and for the next few years he worked hard at his studies. Marx came under the influence of Bruno Bauer, whose was a hardline atheist and political radical. It is here that Marx began to formulate his ideas of unity, equality, and communal living.
Upon his father’s death, Marx tried his hand at journalism. But his radical political views meant that most papers were unwilling to publish his articles. He tried working at a few papers with limited success. He then moved to Paris in 1843.
There, along with Arnold Ruge, Karl Marx founded a political journal titled the German-French Annals. Only a single issue was published. But in 1844, the journal paired Marx together with Friedrich Engels, who would become his collaborator and lifelong friend. The two wrote a criticism of Bruno Bauer. The result of Marx and Engels’s first collaboration was published in 1845 as “The Holy Family.”
Later in 1845, Karl Marx was expelled from France for his radical views and moved to Belgium. In Brussels, Marx was introduced to socialism by Moses Hess. While there, he wrote “The German Ideology” and “Theses on Feuerbach,” both of which were not published until after his death.
In 1846, Marx founded a Communist Correspondence Committee. It was his goal to link socialists from across Europe. Socialists in England also formed the Communist League, and in 1847 at a Central Committee meeting in London, the organization asked Marx and Engels to write the Manifesto of the Communist Party. It was published in 1848, and in 1849, Marx was expelled from Belgium. He tried living in France and Prussia but both refused him. So Marx moved to London.
In London, Marx continued to work as a journalist, including as a correspondent for the New York Daily Tribune. But he never earned a living wage and was largely supported by Engels. Marx, during this time, focused in on capitalism and economic theory. In 1867, he published the first volume of “Das Kapital.”
During his last decade, Karl Marx’s health markedly declined and he was incapable of any sustained effort of his work. He spent time writing and revising manuscripts for additional volumes, which he could not complete. His remaining works were assembled and published posthumously by Engels. Marx died of pleurisy in London on March 14, 1883. He was virtually penniless. Marx’s original gravestone was plain and nondescript. The Communist Party of Great Britain, however, erected a large tombstone in 1954 in his honor. The stone is chiseled with the last line of The Communist Manifesto “Workers of all lands unite.”
Karl Marx And The Tenants of Conflict Theory:
According to Karl Marx, in all cultures there are two main social groups: the ruling elite and a subject class. In his Conflict Theory, he looked at history from a materialistic standpoint. This meant that he looked at culture as simply being all the material products that were created within it. (So our American culture is the sum total of all the goods and services produced within it.) And since it was the workers that produced the products, the people that controlled the workers controlled the culture.
Conflict Theory also took a critical look at all existing social arrangements and advocated political revolution. Since the ruling class derived their power from ownership, he saw their position as exploitative. The bulk of Karl Marx’s theory concerned itself the system by which money, workers, machines, tools, and factories were controlled by a small minority of the population. Since this system leads to two opposed classes, he saw it as a flawed system. Karl Marx saw economic exploitation leading to political oppression, and those in power using religion to pacify the oppressed population.
And while this view might seem completely bleak, he did see in the system an inevitable change brought about by the dialectical method. The dialectical method focuses on how an existing social system (i.e. slavery) generates its social opposite (i.e. master) and on how a radically different form comes from the resulting struggle (i.e. armed revolt). He believed that any exploitative economic arrangements generated within itself the seeds of its own destruction. And he saw this cycle of imbalance, struggle, and rebirth continuing until there was the complete equality of communism.
The Bible And The Have/Have Nots:
Unlike Karl Marx, the Bible does not have such a dim view of the owner/worker dichotomy. Positions of authority are not seen as detrimental or exploitive – but rather necessary and useful. And while poor leaders were shrugged off, it was not that their right of authority was wrong, just their poor execution of the office.
To the Hebrew mind, specifically, a position of authority was simply an extension of the family dynamic. A person of authority was considered a “father to his people.” In Hebrew society, the role of the father was one of protector, provider, judge, and leader. The family looked to him to care for their material needs, properly divide the work load, arbitrate disputes, protect against aggressors, and love them. So, any office of authority also carried those same obligations.
The Office of Priest:
They answered him, “Be quiet! Don’t say a word. Come with us, and be our father and priest. Isn’t it better that you serve a tribe and clan in Israel as priest rather than just one man’s household?”
The Office of King:
1 Samuel 24:11
See, my father, look at this piece of your robe in my hand! I cut off the corner of your robe but did not kill you. See that there is nothing in my hand to indicate that I am guilty of wrongdoing or rebellion. I have not wronged you, but you are hunting me down to take my life.
The Office of Prophet:
2 Kings 2:12
Elisha saw this and cried out, “My father! My father! The chariots and horsemen of Israel!” And Elisha saw him no more. Then he took hold of his garment and tore it in two.
The Office of “Protector of the Poor”:
I was a father to the needy;
I took up the case of the stranger.
The Office of Governor:
I will clothe him with your robe and fasten your sash around him and hand your authority over to him. He will be a father to those who live in Jerusalem and to the people of Judah.
So the Biblical cultures did not view the leader/follower relationship as dichotomous as Karl Marx did, but symbiotic. A leader needs his people and a people need their leader. Just as a father is crowned with glory by his children and children are blessed by their father – so to is a leader and their people. Consider these proverbs:
The father of a righteous child has great joy; a man who fathers a wise son rejoices in him.
A good person leaves an inheritance for their children’s children, but a sinner’s wealth is stored up for the righteous.
A large population is a king’s glory, but without subjects a prince is ruined.
Notice in the first two proverbs we see the symbiotic relationship with a parent and their children, and in the last proverb we see the same symbiotic relationship with a king and his people. So the idea of authority being inherently corrupt is not found in the Bible. It is a God given position to benefit both those in power and those under their protection.
For the one in authority is God’s servant for your good.
Karl Marx saw the power of the elites as inherently a corrupting force. And to be sure, those in power tend to hold onto and increase their power once they have it. But that does not mean that their position is not necessary. Just as in a family, the father’s role is beneficial for the security, sustenance, and care of the family. And to be sure, father’s have abused their power throughout the centuries. But their role, properly executed, is a badly needed one for their children.
For Karl Marx, communal living in which each member holds resources and power in common is the eventual goal of humanity. And while the goal is laudable, it is neither practical or necessary. Consider this passage from Revelation when speaking of the New Jerusalem:
“The nations will walk by its light, and the kings of the earth will bring their splendor into it.”
Interestingly enough, this passage is referring to the time of the new heaven and new earth. It is the time of paradise, when God lives among His people on Earth. And in this idyllic time, we see “kings” bringing their tribute to God’s Holy City. This would suggest that even with the curse of sin lifted, positions of authority will still be necessary to carry out God’s will, care, and justice.
While there will always be tension between authority and the people, it does not mean that it is not worth the struggle. Leaders need people and people need their leaders. I think it is when the leaders forget that they are a father to their people, that power begins to corrupt them. Consider our Great Husband and Father, Jesus Christ, who “loved the church and gave himself up for her” and “rather… made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant.” It is to Him that we find our ultimate expression of leadership, authority, and power. It is to that style of leadership that all tension evaporates. Karl Marx did not take that into account.