In the ten-plus years of this blog’s existence, I have made any number of Christians angry. Sometimes accidentally, often deliberately. But there is nothing more certain to piss off certain types of Christians than suggesting that the gospel of Jesus and the gospel of Karl Marx have a lot in common.
During the middle of a semester my essays on this site are often directly connected with what is going on in my various classrooms. Over the past ten days I gave two lectures in the team-taught, interdisciplinary honors course in which I teach on The Communist Manifesto with a seminar on two of Marx’s essays sandwiched in between. This inspired me last Tuesday to update and post an essay from a couple of years ago in which Jesus and Karl have an imaginary conversation at a bar.
Suffice it to say that many readers were not amused. As usual, the majority of negative comments landed on my blog’s Facebook page, ranging from those who complained that Marx was an atheist (your point?) to those who pointed out that millions of people have died because of Marx’s supposed disciples (as if the same hasn’t been true of the supposed followers of Jesus) and several who guaranteed that I was going to hell. Then there were those so offended by the title that they started ranting without even reading the essay.
- Jesus would never go into a bar, and Karl Marks (sp.) can’t get out from where he’s being held.
To which I responded
- Apparently you are unaware that for his first miracle Jesus turned vats of water into large amounts of the best wine anyone had ever tasted. It wasn’t grape juice.
I couldn’t help myself.
The vitriol, along with my often-snarky responses, would fill several blog posts. But why bother? Far more encouraging is to consider what happens when one engages challenging texts with an open mind and few preconceptions. In my honors course referenced earlier, we provide the students with a 48-hour online discussion forum after each lecture where students can share their reactions, thoughts, confusions, and insights with each other from the most recent class. My professor colleagues and I do not participate in these forums, but we read them carefully. Early in the evening after my second Marx lecture, one of my teaching colleagues sent me an email: “If you need a pick-me-up, read the forum posts from today. I think we are being spoiled with this class! She was right.
For instance, during lecture I used the story of an early community of Jesus followers from Acts 4 to briefly illustrate the concept of a collective commitment to sharing all things in common rather than owning them indiv” idually as private property. One of the students referenced this on the discussion forum. (All forum posts quoted below are edited for length only)
Something that surprised me in lecture today was the example that Dr. Morgan brought up of communist-like economy in Acts. I had never heard of this connection prior to lecture, but after hearing about it . . . it makes sense that this kind of economic system would be supported by the Apostles. Communism ensures that no one is living in extreme poverty and that no one is getting too rich. One of the main messages of the Gospels and Jesus’ word was how the poor were blessed and they should be helped first . . . I wonder why more Christians and followers of similar religions are not followers and supporters of a Communist economy today. If this economic system is more in line with the beliefs of Jesus, why wouldn’t his followers advocate following his teachings in economics today?
When my colleagues and I compared notes from the Marx seminar, the three of us agreed that our students over the past few years have been less resistant to Marx than we had experienced in previous years. I mentioned this to the students in lecture, asking them to think about why this might be the case. One student did just that in her discussion forum post.
Something I wanted to expand on was the misconceptions many of us have about Communism from previous classes, teachers, books, etc. Dr. Morgan mentioned that students tend to be more receptive to learning about Communism now than they were a decade ago. Part of the reason why this is true may be due to the fact that we are far enough removed from historic examples of Communism that we can learn about it as it was originally intended to be without including biases based on how imperfect attempts at Communism have failed historically.
There are many examples in The Communist Manifesto that resonate with modern readers . . . We live in an age where we are still striving to minimize the wage gap between men and women, which is something Marx was advocating for centuries ago. Additionally, Marx is calling for an end to child labor, so that “their children [are no longer] transformed into simply articles of commerce and instruments of labor.” These are just a couple of the many examples of “elements of communism” that have been addressed in present-day society, which may be part of the reason why students are more receptive to learning about Communism than in the past few decades.
Toward the end of class, I asked the students to consider why capitalism did not collapse under the pressure of a workers’ revolution as Marx predicted it would. This question generated an excellent discussion for the last part of class, a discussion that one student continued eloquently on the forum.
I wanted to circle back to Dr. Morgan’s discussion at the end of lecture today about why capitalism did not fail as Marx and Engels predicted. I am inclined to agree with the main reason we discussed in class, which is that capitalism was propped up by the socialist policies that were added to it—minimum wage, social security, welfare, and the like.
I would also like to speak more broadly about the method by which capitalism was saved—compromise. I hope I am not offending anyone by saying that capitalism is, by and large, a system put in place by the wealthy to perpetuate their own wealth at the expense of others. It is terrible, and people started to realize that in the nineteenth century . . . What we have slowly started to see over the course of the last century and a half is the slow ceding of ground from the ‘bourgeoisie’ to the ‘proletariat.’ Minimum wages were introduced and then increased—some states are even as bold as to adjust their minimum wages with inflation. Social security is here and here to stay, and many states have voted to expand Medicare and Medicaid recently.
I am not so naïve as to call what happened in eastern Europe during the Cold War communism as Marx and Engels intended it, but it is the closest we have gotten to communism, and it has a habit—like capitalism—of not going particularly well . . . Capitalism and communism are both just awful. On paper, they are delightful, but you should never meet your heroes. It is a mix of the two that will satisfy the needs of the most people. It will never be perfect—we will never find the platonic form of the economic system—but with the ability to take the best of both systems, even when we don’t agree with every specific element of it, we will get as close as possible to it.
The clear-eyed reflections of my bright and engaged nineteen-year-old sophomores both in person and online never fail to energize me positively when compared to the often self-righteous, judgmental, myopic pronouncements of their elders. Maybe a better world is coming—even if sixty-somethings (and older) such as I will not be here to fully experience it. We can only hope.