Issue 104 / March - April 2015
Karl Marx, the Prophet of Materialism
Mustafa Ismet Uzun
If there is any thinker or philosopher who has been the most critical of religion, it is undoubtedly Karl Marx. The so-called savior and deliverer of the proletariat - the working class - adamantly argued that the whole of history is the history of "class struggle" and proposed an economic theory, which he called communism; this became the framework of most of the twentieth century's totalitarian governments.
Some believe his system has been the worst that humanity will ever encounter; others believe it is the supreme political and social system ever devised. Having appreciated the substantial influence Marx had on the fates of millions of people, I would like to analyze the underlying reasons why many were moved by his notions whereas others, especially religious people, labeled him "the evil prophet of the evil system."
Inspired by the two prominent materialists of ancient Greece, Democritus and Epicurus, Marx exclusively based all his arguments on the millennia-old idea of "materialism," which absolutely negated everything but the material, visible dimension of existence. He asserted that matter is the basic reality and anything beyond the physical realm is unlikely to exist. One would not be surprised to find out that all his later writings were in the shade of two significant theories:
1. The conviction that economic realities determine human behavior;
2. The view that the human history is the story of class struggle between those who own things - the rich or the capitalist (he later called them bourgeoisie), and those who must work to survive - the poor (the proletariat).
The former notion of his is obviously flawed due to the fact that he reduces human reality explicitly to something material, which can be seen as a reincarnation of Epicurus' narrow materialistic interpretation of existence. Even some materialist social scientists like Durkheim - whose central theory was all about how individuals were shaped by social atmosphere - would refute the idea that human behavior is essentially one-dimensional, or a product solely of economic conditions. In other words, how can one reduce the most complex behavior of the most evolved entity in the universe, the human being, to a mere product of economics?
As far as I am concerned, what a human being most needs is indisputably his or her freedom to make decisions. Now, these decisions are undoubtedly affected by economic conditions; but claiming that the only reason for any human behavior is economic is inevitably defective. One cannot help asking: "is the material aspect of existence what drives the matter, or is there likely to be something beyond the visible veil of phenomena?"
Marx would certainly reply with an exaggerated "No" to the second question and with an applauding, warm hearted "Yes" to the first. It seems quite obvious that the argument of whether existence is material or composed of the material and the immaterial still has its battle ground on this heavenly Earth. On the one hand, people like Marx assert that existence is just the material form and develop their worldview based on this reductionist notion. On the other hand, others maintain that matter is a splendid manifestation of some ideal forms people can realize in the material realm by means of a higher level of understanding. For instance, when one beholds a tree, they don't only see the material form of the tree. Rather, it becomes like letters in a word or words in a sentence, allowing them to better articulate certain sentences. The universe becomes an ode for them to read and understand. That is, they express something more than what they are.
I would like to shed some more light on this point. For example, when one enters a splendid palace, a real masterpiece of a renowned architect, would they just assume an air of saying, "I just see stones, carpets, etc., which are the result of difficult labor"? Or would they also recognize the delicate artistry expressed in the material form, which stems from the artistic ability of the great architect in addition to the hard work of labor?
Let's think of a representative parable. If one found an antique iron vase and took it first to an antique's shop, it would fetch a million dollars; but the same vase would not even make a few cents in the blacksmith's market. Therefore, the art expressed in a material object is far greater than its material value. Everything in the universe is an artifact that carries a profound meaning for us to apprehend.
Secondly, it seems not unexpected that Marx diligently addressed the profound problem not only in nineteenth century Europe, where the working class was greatly oppressed by the then land and factory owners, but also the chief problem throughout the whole of human history. In medical terms, his diagnosis of the disease (the wealth is/was distributed unevenly and the working class is/was really oppressed) was outstanding, but the prescription he wrote - the abolition of all kinds of chains (private property, family, religion etc.) - did not act as a cure; rather, it subtly eradicated the human factor of those societies where each and all individuals lost their rights to private property, family, and freedom, the basic building element of a dignified human being. For instance, in North Korea and Cuba, where the governments adopt the notions of communism, people even dread to voice a single problem they would otherwise easily solve on their own in a free country. Testimonials of several individuals who fled the aforementioned countries for the pursuit of freedom are worth heeding as to whether communism could serve as a remedy for the suffering of the oppressed or itself acts as a tool of oppressing the proletariat.
Alas! Marx would swallow his tongue if he saw so called communist governments oppressing the miserable proletariat in the name of the very same system he proposed. In fact, how could one cure cancer (the oppression of the working class) with aspirin (communism)? Weren't the geniuses of the Soviet Union and China clever enough to interpret the theories of Marx to better the lives of millions? How should one interpret the willingness of Chinese politicians to embrace open market policies? Would this mean they implicitly admit the fact that the communist understanding of economics, the very base Marx proposed, eventually failed? Or are we so blind not to see the sufferings of the people in these communist countries? Or are they still holding onto the political propaganda that one day we will certainly form the ideal communist society where no class exists? Misery, real misery! People are in pursuit of a mere dream that never comes true. I wonder what "opium" the oppressed people of the communist countries using.
We must ask: what is left of a human being who has lost their freedom? Their physical body. Isn't this the abolition of freedom in the name of freedom? Who is more enslaved: a person whose body is chained but whose ideas are free, or a person who has an unchained body but no free ideas? I guess what communism demands is the latter.
When it comes to religion, Marx is ingeniously apt to describe it as the "opium of the people," the "heart of a heartless world," "the spirit of a spiritless situation," and "the sigh of the oppressed creature." In the ideology of Marxism, religion plays the evil role of subduing the vital driving force of the imagined revolution against the bourgeoisie, the revolution which hopes to establish the dream world of the classless communist society. The fact that all he wanted was to get rid of the tyranny of the bourgeoisie who devised "religion" as a superstructure tool of repression compelled him to condemn religion with the utmost animosity. Quite simply, according to him, if religion were gone, people would start thinking about their salvation from the brutality of the bourgeoisie; such salvation was the backbone of the proletariat revolution. At this point, I wish Marx could see how mistaken his perception of religion was. The way he describes religion is completely against the spirit of religion, which is to help human beings to achieve their very best - not only in the ethical sense, but more importantly to also advance their understanding and use of material resources.
Moreover, throughout history, religion has often enabled the salvation of rich and poor alike, and in some societies has helped to close the wealth gap between rich and poor, ensuring a more even distribution of wealth. Furthermore, one of the key elements in any religion is to fight against any kind of exploitation and injustice; therefore, alleging that religion was the primary tool in the hands of the brutal bourgeoisie is a fatal crime against humanity.
One should analyze all the teachings of a religion before they pass a crucial judgment on it, especially when the matter is relevant to billions of people. At first glance, Marx's illustration of religion falls in the category of the restricted understanding of a century in which the poor, particularly, were extremely oppressed; that understanding does not extend to the whole history of humanity. One could easily contend that the first community of Christians (since Marx mostly took issue with Christianity) was, first and foremost, different from the church Marx wholeheartedly fought against. For instance, the first Christians never lived luxuriously, unlike Marx's contemporaries, who went astray from the very essential teachings of their religion. One must ask: is Christianity to blame for this? Or does the blame fall to the mischievous and wretched novices of the Church who damaged the lives of so many people through deprivation, affliction, and tribulation?
If only Marx could have behaved like Newton, who unshackled his nominal Church-made restraints and paved a magnificent way for generations to come. I would wholeheartedly like to applaud the courage of Copernicus, who declared "the world rotates around the sun, not the other way around." He did this despite the despotism of his time, and at the risk of his life. The striking truth about these exceptional personalities is that while they made their best efforts to explain the universe, they never doubted their religious identity, which is a notable justification against the reincarnated dialectical materialism of Karl Marx.
In conclusion, it wouldn't be too severe to speculate that Karl Marx has become the false prophet of those who wanted a religion of materialism. Was he a prophet, a philosopher, or a speculative writer parroting the ideas of the early Greek philosophers? Time sometimes is the best judge to rule out some obsolete ideas that are never meant for the betterment of a society or the human race. In this sense, communism devoid of any peculiar worth finds its unfortunate place in the dark basements of human history. On the other hand, Marx's efforts to terminate the suffering of the poor will always be remembered by both his disciples and his foes. As for his infamous enmity of religion, if only he could have been more open-minded to catch a glimpse of what religion really taught: the salvation of humanity from chains of any sort - be they material or immaterial.