Wherever Marx’s ideas have been implemented, collective ownership has given a few people immense, unchecked power over every aspect of life—ironically, one of Marx’s accusations against capitalism. The failure of utopia to materialize means that the “dictatorship of the proletariat” becomes permanent, and can only be maintained through brutality and terror.
To borrow a phrase from C.S. Lewis, there are two equal and opposite errors one can fall into concerning Marxism. One rightly identifies Marxism as a powerful and pernicious influence in modern Western culture, but then comes to the mistaken suspicion that anything that talks about oppression or justice is “Marxist” and needs to be exposed as such. The opposite error, which can stem from naïveté or nefarious intent, is to ignore or deny blatant signs of Marxist influence in contemporary ideologies and movements.
The two errors feed on each other: the more one side sees Marxism under every bush and uses the word as a club to beat down any opponent that is in some sense to their “left,” the more the other has an excuse to dismiss all charges of Marxism as so much spin and propaganda. In order to help the church avoid both of these errors, this article provides a factual account of Marxism’s origins and character. A subsequent article will look at the long-term influence of Marxism in communist societies and the West.
Marxism takes its name from the German thinker Karl Marx (1818–83). Western European society was changing rapidly in Marx’s day. The French Revolution of a few decades earlier had unleashed tremendous political upheaval. The Industrial Revolution was leading to the growth of cities and the emergence of a large urban working class. A growing belief in the inevitable progress of science and culture was taking hold of educated people.
Rapid change created new social problems. The new class of wage labourers in the mines and factories were vulnerable to dangerous working conditions, low pay, and insecurity—which seemed all the more unjust in comparison with the spectacular wealth and power amassed by the entrepreneurs who owned these mines and factories.
Marx was not the only thinker to criticize these conditions, and propose a society based on a different, more egalitarian economic system. What set him apart from other “socialist” thinkers was his all-encompassing vision of the hidden laws governing human history and society.
In contrast to the prevalent philosophies in Germany at the time, which saw ideas as the driving force in history, Marx concluded that material factors are everything. There is no realm of spirit and no God, he claimed—all that exists is the material world. The economic basis of life, how we feed and clothe and house ourselves, determines every aspect of a society, even its ideas. In particular, Marx argued, the class that owns the “means of production” in a society is able to dominate and exploit everyone else.
For Marx, this simple principle explained historical change. Changes to the means of production led to changes in the identity of the ruling class and therefore the leading values. The feudal nobility of medieval Europe had derived their power from their control of the land, and exploited the serfs whose labour made them rich. But as economic power shifted to commercial and industrial activities, the nobility and their values were thrust aside by the urban merchant class, the “bourgeoisie.” In this new dispensation, which Marx called “capitalism,” the exploitation of serfs by nobles gave way to the exploitation of industrial workers (the “proletariat”) by the bourgeoisie.