Karl Marx was born 200 years ago on May 5, 1818. His ideology is subscribed to by almost half the people on the planet, and his philosophy has led to communism, which has led to the death of 100 million-plus people.
I don’t have time here to fully recount the economic failure of Marxism, which is massive and obvious. Marxist economies fail because they oppose private ownership of property, while capitalist economies thrive. Marxist China was only able to save its economy by ignoring Marxist economics and allowing capitalist private ownership to take root.
My obvious concern in this column is the teachings of Marxism about religion. Marx wrote a famous passage in 1843:
“Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people. The abolition of religion as the illusory happiness of the people is the demand for their real happiness. To call on them to give up their illusions about their condition is to call on them to give up a condition that requires illusions.”
For Marx, religion is like a drug that keeps people from seeing what is wrong with their lives, and that drug is the belief in God and the belief that God has created people with a pure soul that will go to Heaven after the body dies. For Marx, none of this was true because he was a materialist. In his view, the only real things are things we can see and work we do and stuff we produce. People need to give up God and religion in order to make a good society. They need to give up Heaven in order to produce a Heaven on Earth, he thought. This Marxist belief produced communist societies that are hostile to religion in all its forms. It is fitting that the Catholic Church in Poland and the movement called Solidarity, with the support of Pope John Paul II, were among the main forces that brought down the communist Soviet Union’s grip on the people of Eastern Europe. The desire of people to worship God is far greater than their desire to live in a failed state that hates a loving faith.
I don’t want to be completely harsh in my critique of Marxism. It is not true that the Bible is a capitalist guidebook. The biblical economic view is not that private capitalists own everything, and it is not that the state owns everything, but it is that God owns everything,
”The earth is the Lord’s and all it contains, The world, and those who dwell in it.” (Psalm 24:1 and also 1 Corinthians 10:26)
In Leviticus, we learn that all debts must be forgiven every seven years and that you cannot harvest the corners of your own wheat field or pick every grape from your vineyard because that produce must be left to be harvested by the poor, and slaves must be set free. The words inscribed on the Liberty Bell are from this passage (Leviticus 25:10): ”You shall proclaim liberty throughout the land unto all the inhabitants thereof.”
America has not always lived up to this commandment from God. It is not a capitalist commandment. It does not say that people who are in need but have nothing to sell should languish and die. It says that all people in the land must be fed by the land that only God owns. We can own some of it provisionally, but we cannot own everything. That is biblical economics. It is not capitalism, but it is also not Marxism. It takes the sting and cruelty out of capitalism and it takes the oppression out of Marxism. It is an economic system that is compassionate and yet also rewards risk and incentive.
It is also an economic system that has never been tried.
My favorite socialism story is about a group of kindergarten children in an Israeli kibbutz. A kibbutz is a socialist farm based on Marxist ideas where everyone shares everything. One day a visitor from America brought a bunch of crayons, one package for each child. He dumped all the packages of crayons on a big table and then an amazing thing happened. In America, each child would have taken a package of crayons and written his or her name on it. In that kibbutz, the kids opened up all the packages and shared all the crayons.
There are many reasons to reject Marxism: economics, history, philosophy and religion wrong. I had never understood that human dignity is a gift of God and not a gift of our labor. Marxism got so much wrong, but on occasion it can produce terrific crayon sharers.