‘Is Marxism Compatible with Christianity?’ by Sidney Hook from Christianity and Marxism: A Symposium with Francis A. Henson, Henry P. Van Dusen, and Sidney Hook. Polemic Pamphlet No. 2. Polemic Publishers, New York. 1934.
I HAVE yielded to the earnest invitation of the editor of The Christian Register to comment upon the discussion between Mr. Henson and Mr. Van Dusen, with some reluctance. The fundamental presuppositions which both disputants share are so foreign to the Marxian tradition and to my own way of thinking that they seem to me to be more significant than their differences. In addition, the subject is complicated by the absence of strict definitions, so that I am at a loss to say whether terms like God, Christianity, ethics, and love are being used in a Pickwickian and emotive sense, or with the literal meanings which traditional religions have given them.
Violently Redefining Terms
This point is of more than verbal importance, because it seems to me that anyone who asserts that Marxism is compatible with Christianity — or any religion — can do so only by violently redefining these terms for the purposes of the occasion. Philosophically, Marxism is evolutionary (dialectical) naturalism or scientific materialism; Christianity necessarily involves some form of idealism—whether personalistic, mentalistic or speculative. Logically, these views are contraries; both may be false but both cannot be true. It is with the question of their relative truth that I wish to concern myself here, and not with exegetical inquiries. I shall take Mr. Van Dusen’s paper as the basis for the discussion. Although he very properly insists upon the radical divergence between Marxism and Christianity, he contends that on some points there is a pretty thoroughgoing agreement between them — notably in the emphasis on dialectic thinking and revolutionary activity. I wish to go further than he does, and to maintain that wherever Christianity agrees with Marxism it is at the cost of a crying inconsistency with its own principles and a relapse into eclecticism.
1. The first of the five differences which Mr. Van Dusen enumerates between Marxism and Christianity concerns the determinative conditions of human history. Against the Marxian economic interpretation” of history, Mr. Van Dusen opposes as the alternative of Christianity “the moral interpretation” of history. This offers us an opportunity to test, in the social realm, the relative worth of the idealistic and naturalistic approach.
According to Mr. Van Dusen the ultimate forces which determine the historical pattern are ethical Any other factors which contribute a determining influence do so only in so far as they represent “moral realities.” What is true for the basic pattern must be true of the most outstanding events within it, and so, consistently enough, Mr. Van Dusen says of the greatest crisis in modern times what he would probably say of the fall of the Roman Empire, or of the American Civil War, or of the Russian Revolution: “The Christian sees the present depression as fundamentally due to sin — willful or careless blindness to the moral structure of reality. …”
To a Marxist this view is very difficult to understand and still more difficult to accept. It strikes him as careless blindness to attribute unemployment, falling prices, bankruptcies, foreclosures and their attendant disasters to human sinfulness, which, if I understand Mr. Van Dusen, has been pretty constant in all periods of human history and, indeed, is almost — so he seems to suggest — an integral part of human nature. What is the evidence, the Marxist inquires, that human beings were more sinful in 1929 than in 1923? And why, for example, did the depression become more intense as church memberships increased, to mention only one amusing correlation? And what is a sin? Mr. Van Dusen speaks of the sin of gluttony for money and for power and for a specious prosperity. By “gluttony for money” does Mr. Van Dusen mean perhaps “hoarding” or “saving instead of spending”? But this was once a virtue called “thrift” — and it was called a virtue precisely at those times when capital accumulation was necessary for the needs of an expanding economy. Whether it be regarded as a virtue or a vice, why should “gluttony for money or power” have had such disparate economic effects at different times? Further, if human immorality is the cause of the depression, then human morality ought to get us out. What would Mr. Van Dusen recommend? Granted the will to be saved, can the point in the social structure at which it would be necessary to implement that will, be deduced from the mere existence of the will? Whether he begins with the mechanisms of credit, finance, politics or education, is he not admitting that the causal agencies must be sought elsewhere than in human morality?
Major Calamities do not “Happen” We need not labor the point. For a Marxist the major calamities which overtake human beings as members of the social order, especially in times of depression, are events which ”happen” to them in the sense that no ethical responsibility is involved. It borders on gratuitous libel to attribute their misfortune to their sinfulness. Although the Marxist is not strong on Christian charity, he does not even hold the great industrialists and financiers responsible for what has happened. It is clear that they themselves did not, and do not, know what it is all about. Here is not the place to argue the Marxian hypothesis that the objective contradictions between the ever-expanding forces of production and the relatively ever-narrowing range of consumption, both of which flow from the capitalist relations of production, is the chief cause of the crisis. For even a non-Marxist would object to Mr. Van Dusen’s theory of history on the ground that it made any explanation of the social process impossible.
A Marxist cannot grant that ethical factors are “ultimately” determining. They may have proximate influence upon events. But an examination of these ethical factors will always show that they have a specific content in a determinate context. Man’s desire for the better may be invariant, but that does not tell us what he regards as better in any historical situation. That is why the scientific approach which the Marxist takes to ethics is relevant. He attempts to explain why ethical patterns of response change, why conflicting ethical views are found when and where they are, why one group subscribes to them rather than another, etc. He even attempts to explain something which, curiously enough, Mr. Van Dusen cannot explain in terms of his own Christian hypothesis and methods, viz., the development of Christian doctrine itself, the changes in its organization, its varying attitudes towards interest, divorce, and the transcendent nature of the divinity.
The Moral Structure of Reality
From the philosophical point of view what puzzles a Marxist most of all is the phrase the “moral structure of reality.” Mr. Van Dusen repeats this several times. What does it mean? From a naturalist’s point of view, value is the object of human interest, and morality, the organization of human interests. The locus of value and morality is individual but their content is social. Does Mr. Van Dusen mean that the principles of value and morality are constitutive of the universe, that, as all objective idealists believe, the cosmic order is a moral order? If so, how can be justify the normative character of morality, how can he escape the conclusion that whatever is, is right? He affirms that, in virtue of the “constraining framework of the moral design of God” no material or selfish ideals can ultimately prevail. If this statement is not a tautology, but is asserted as a meaningful and true proposition, what is the evidence for it? History? But the record shows that selfish and material-minded groups have prevailed at least as often as other groups. And if they have ultimately gone down to defeat, the same is true for “unselfish” groups, among whom we may number some noble Christian sects as well. Mr. Van Dusen’s philosophy of history is really a theology. But even as theology, it has many difficulties which can be traced to two inconsistent strands within it — an immanent teleology with Roycean overtones of a spiritual community of love, which at least has the merit of grappling with the problem of evil, and the “transcendent God” of dialectical theology whom Karl Barth found when he made a virtue of his unwillingness to grapple analytically with the problem of evil. For Marxists, as for all naturalists, there is no problem of evil; there are only problems and evils. The soluble problems and remedial evils are primarily social.
2. This brings me to point 4 in Mr. Van Dusen’s enumeration. He accuses Marxism of being romantic in its belief in a social apocalypse, and points out that since “Christianity knows something of sin,” it is more realistic in its attitude toward human nature and human failure. The plain implication is that Marxists hold to the view that, with the change from a capitalist to a collectivist order, mankind will be free from all moral and intellectual deficiencies and that the reign of heaven on earth will be inaugurated.
Communism — The End of All Evils?
It has become quite fashionable for critics of Marxism to seize upon the silly pretensions of silly “orthodox” communists that Communism means the end of all evils, oppression, jealousy, maladministration, etc. The critics are perfectly justified in charging that this view is Utopian and evidence of a puerile optimism. As if the whole of man’s life is social! — and as if the liberation of man from the blind social forces of an unplanned economy does anything more than give him greater ethical responsibility for his actions! The critics do well to suspect any faith in the existence of a perfect social harmony — now or in the future. Would they were as critical of the still larger faith in a cosmic harmony! But the point I wish to stress is that there is no warrant for believing that Marx and Engels ever held the view attributed to them. On the contrary, there is considerable evidence that in their criticisms of the Utopian socialists, St. Simon and Fourier, and of the sentimental socialists of the Feuerbachian variety, Marx and Engels directed their critical shafts precisely against the unhistorical social illusions of these schools.
There is, however, a world of difference between Marxists who admit that collective control of the mechanical conditions of social life does not automatically carry with it the assurance that such control will be exercised in the most intelligent and ethical direction, and Christians like Mr. Van Dusen who believe that man is inherently sinful, and that, no matter what institutional equivalents for his sinfulness are found, the spiritual quality of his motives and actions will be the same. Like some other followers of dialectical theology, Mr. Van Dusen holds to the paradoxical view that man is naturally so evil that only when he is living in the best possible society, can he understand how really bad he is. To a Marxists the only empirical equivalent of “the soul” is “consciousness,” and he can understand what is meant by “sin” only on the supposition that when the Christian speaks of “sin,” he means “selfishness.” But the ethical quality of selfishness or unselfishness is not intrinsic but flows from the consequences of selfish or unselfish actions in specific situations. A man who unselfishly beggars himself and his family in behalf of an unworthy person or cause is not morally superior to a person who selfishly demands what is his due, knowing full well that if he does not stand on his rights, a precedent for injuring others will be established. For a Marxist, neither selfishness nor unselfishness is virtue or vice. If he is a realist, he understands that so long as man lives in an imperfect world, there will always be suffering, injustice and accident. But he points out that these need not be economic in form; nor need they be regarded as evidence of original sin; nor need they be necessarily lamented as absolute evils. For the nature of man is such that he can live only in a world which is imperfect in many respects. In fact some of his best qualities can be realized only in so far as they are accompanied by negative qualities. In a world In which there would be no jealousy, there would be no romantic love; in a world in which there would be no envy, there would be no ambition, restful achievement or watchful justice; where personal discrimination would be lacking, the marked preferment of deep friendship would be impossible. The community of saints is neither a possible nor a desirable ideal.
3. Mr. Van Dusen’s second point concerns the legitimacy of coercion as a method oi social change. The use of such coercion, he holds, violates “the ethical unity of reality,” whatever that may mean. Here again we note the characteristic shift between the attitude of Job-like acquiescence towards the world and the attitude of normative ethical inquiry and activity. If it be true that “the universe is a moral unity” then nothing; within it can be declared essentially evil — including the use of coercion. If only a selected aspect of the universe be regarded as good, what are the ethical criteria of the selection? If non-resistance or non-assertion be one of the intrinsic and unqualifiable criteria of selection, then Mr. Van Dusen must condemn as unethical every form of social life, for it is a commonplace of political scientists and realistic historians that no social organization, about which we have knowledge, has ever existed without some organ of sovereignty; and every expression of sovereignty involves coercion — explicit or implicit. Surely Mr. Van Dusen cannot mean that the conventional impositions of coercion arc moral, and that coercion is immoral only when it is used by an oppressed class. A Marxist may grant that coercion is intrinsically bad just as the infliction of any kind of pain, as such, upon human beings is bad. But that judgment does not imply that it is wrong to use coercion unless it can be shown that non-coercive measures can be taken which promise to be just as effective as the more direct ones. In any situation the Marxist judges coercion in the light of the total context of its use. The sentimental refusal to employ force to stop a man about to harm or kill others, or the refusal to take active measures of opposition against a war of nations, is itself a sign of immorality and lends objective aid to the killers and war-makers.
Coercion Only as an Instrument of Last Resort
The Marxist is as human and humane as any realistic Christian, but he does not subscribe to a creed or dogma of non-resistance which makes every one of his actions appear to be inconsistent. The Marxist justifies coercion only as an instrument of last resort, only as it has the sanction of a majority of the producing classes, and only as a measure of defense against the brutal onslaughts of minority groups, in power or out, who try to set the will of the great masses of the population at naught. The historical record shows that oppressed groups always suffer more violence than they inflict, that they have literally been goaded into active resistance and generally give battle under disadvantageous conditions. The Christian who preaches non-resistance to an oppressed group is literally attempting to undermine its will to opposition. (I have developed this theory at greater length in Chapter XVIII of my book, ‘Towards the Understanding of Karl Marx.’)
Sometimes “orthodox” Communists speak as if they had made a fetish of force. There is nothing in Marx or Lenin to justify this. In fact, Lenin called it part of a disease known as “infantile leftism.” It is becoming increasingly important to distinguish on the one hand between critical Marxism based “on Marx’s teachings and on the laws of logic, and on the other hand between “orthodox” social-democracy and “orthodox” Communism which in different ways emasculate Marx’s real views. If they are interested in a correct analysis of the Marxist position mid not merely in an easy refutation, opponents of Marxism should come to grips with the views developed in Marx’s own writings and not in those of his fanatical hero-worshipers, who more often than not have not read him.
The Individual and History
4. Mr. Van Dusen’s third point concerns itself with the importance of individuals as the “creative principle in history.” Marxists are reproached with not properly understanding what Mr, Van Dusen calls “Christianity’s distinctive contribution to a philosophy of history.” Now I wish to point out that not all Christians would agree with Mr. Van Dusen that the individual is the creative principle in history. Certainly in different ways, Hegel and Royce would stress the importance of the community, of Objective Mind — language, law, custom, art— of the operation of the great institutions of objective mind — the family, church, and state — which explain the contents of the individual mind and not vice versa. In fact, it seems an impossible task to explain the trends of world history, the rise and fall of empires, the change in ideal patterns, including the varying estimates of the importance of the individual. in society in terms of “the vision and life and influence of the individual person.”
Marxists believe that man makes his own history, but they do not believe that every particular person does. Collective man is the author of his own historic fate, but his activity at any time is limited and prescribed by certain determinate conditions — his physical environment, his biological potentialities and the economic and cultural consequences of his past activities. These socio-physical forces by themselves produce nothing. Men are the efficient factors of every social act. But sometimes these conditioning factors are so strong that, no matter which men are in a position to wield influence, it is safe to say that the direction and consequences of their activity would be the same. At other times — much more infrequently —a man specially endowed by nature, or entering the political scene at a moment when the constellation of social forces is rapidly shifting (e.g., Lenin’s return to Russia), will exercise an influence not uniquely deducible from the normal operation of these social forces without him. This is an empirical matter to be settled by an analysis of particular cases. The impression of incurable abstraction which Marxist historiography makes upon Mr. Van Dusen is in part due to the very nature of a historical account which, since it involves selective reorganization of the past, can never be as rich as the actual historic experience. To expect to catch the whole of the past in our present knowledge of it is to expect knowledge to create the subject matter which it seeks to understand— a metaphysical impossibility on all views except idealism. In part, Mr. Van Dusen ‘s impression is derived from the writings of dogmatic and incompetent Marxists who think the possession of a formula makes detailed historic research unnecessary. The best way to correct the impression is to read the historical writings of Marx and Engels, of Lenin and Trotsky and Mehring, and, with certain cautions and corrections, the major works of our own Charles Beard.
5. The fifth and most important difference between Marxism and Christianity, according to Mr. Van Dusen, concerns the question of the nature of “ultimate reality.” It is difficult to discuss the “nature of ultimate reality,” because these words are infected with profound metaphysical ambiguity. What, e.g., does that little word “Real” mean? Offhand one can distinguish at least three different meanings. (1) Real may mean what exists in space and time; (2) Real may be a value term and express a preference, moral or esthetic; (3) Real may mean “necessary condition” or “independent variable,” which is what the scientist intends when he distinguishes between the “real” conditions of color and its actual experience.
For a Marxist, the “realities” of the world are discovered by experiment, analysis and reflection upon all the relevant data of experience. The realities of the physical world, although always present, may not be the realities of the psychological, social or esthetic world. There is only one world, but it presents many aspects or realms. The key categories to these realms must be found in the structure and behavior of the objects studied. The physical realm is “fundamental” in the order of time but not in the order oi significance. If I can guess at Mr. Van Dusen’s meaning, I think that he differs with the Marxists primarily on the question of the metaphysical status of ethical ideals. For a Marxist, ethical ideals have social reality. They emerge in a social context and outside the historical behavior of men, the structure of their organisms and the character of their cultures, it is meaningless to say that the world as a cosmic whole is ethical. Ethical ideals arise out of determinate social conditions and have as their function the perpetuation or transformation of the social order in which they have developed. In the eyes of a Marxist, any other view of the status of ethical ideals leads to unintelligible mysticism or else to the position that “whatever is, is right.”
Mr. Henson is right, I believe, over against Mr. Van Dusen in his claim that the future will see churchmen divided on the social issue and compelled to choose between the two camps of reaction or revolution. A Marxist would add, however, that so long as they remain within the church they are aiding the camp of reaction. The social principles of Christianity in so far as they are specifically Christian and construed in terms of the institutional behavior of churches can never be adequate to profound social change. Marx’s views on religion may appear in the light of modern comparative religion as much too crude and simple. His dictum that religion, is the opium of the people fails to explain, for example, the nature of primitive religion, its multiple psychological motivation, and why in class societies all ruling classes have religions of their own and believe in them as fervently as oppressed classes do. But in essence Marx was right. Whoever approaches the problem of Christianity and social justice from a historical point of view cannot” deny that the following passage from Marx is substantially accurate:
“The social principles of Christianity have had eighteen centuries in which to develop, and have no need to undergo further development at the hands of Prussian consistorial councilors. The social principles of Christianity justified the slavery of classical days; they glorified medieval serfdom; and they are able when needs be to defend the oppression of the proletariat, though with a somewhat crestfallen air. The social principles of Christianity proclaim the need for the existence of a ruling class and a subjugated class, being content to express the pious hope that the former will deal philanthropically with the latter. The social principles of Christianity assume that there will be compensation in heaven for all the infamies committed on earth, and thereby justify the persistence of those infamies here below. The social principles of Christianity explain that the atrocities perpetrated by the oppressors on the oppressed are either just punishments for original and other sins, or else trials which the Lord in his wisdom ordains for the redeemed. The social principles of Christianity preach cowardice, self-contempt, abasement submission, humility;…and the proletariat, which will not allow itself to be treated as canaille, needs courage, self-confidence, pride, a sense of personal dignity and independence, even more than it needs daily bread. The social principles of Christianity are lick-spittle whereas the proletariat is revolutionary. So much for the social principles of Christianity!”
Christianity and Marxism: A Symposium with Francis A. Henson, Henry P. Van Dusen, and Sidney Hook. Polemic Pamphlet No. 2. Polemic Publishers, New York. 1934.
Contents: Introduction by S. L. Solon, The Challenge of Marxism to Christianity by Francis A. Henson, The Challenge of Christianity to Marxism by Henry P. Fan Dusen, Is Marxism Compatible with Christianity? by Sidney Hook. 19 pages.
Polemic Publishers was a project of the Modern Quarterly/Modern Monthly Magazine with Sam Solon as editor.
PDF of original pamphlet: https://archive.org/download/ChristianityAndMarxismASymposium/CAM_text.pdf