“Then I saw “a new heaven and a new earth,”
for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away…”
(The Bible, The Book of Revelation 21:1)
It is true that Karl Marx (1818-1883) was very anti-religion. Marx was ethnically Jewish. His maternal grandfather was a Dutch Rabbi, while his paternal line had supplied Rabbis to Trier, a southwestern German city, since 1723. His father Herschel was the first in the line to receive a secular education. He became a lawyer and lived a wealthy middle-class life. Prior to Karl Marx’s birth, Herschel converted from Judaism to join the state Evangelical Church of Prussia. Obviously, Karl Marx could not have escaped the impressions created in his mind by the images of Judaism and Christianity. No wonder, Marxism borrows heavily from Judaism and Christianity, even as it rejects the notion of the existence of God.
The standard version of Marx’s theory of history is based on four great stages of history. The first is Primitive communism in the tribal form of society. There is neither private property nor social or economic classes. Men are hunter-gatherers and women take care of household matters. Then population starts increasing. As populations grows, human wants too grows. This leads to relationships that remained within the boundaries of the tribe so far, extending to civilizations outside of it. Competition grows. The strong subdues the weak and slave culture and class-consciousness begin to take root. Tribes come together to establish city, either by agreement or by conquest. The strong man becomes the ruler. Here starts the second stage – Imperialism. The imperial ruler owns all the land. In the face of external threats, he grants land rights to others in return for military support. Thus, a new land-owning aristocracy comes into existence.
Gradually, private property gets concentrated into a few hands. Coupled with it, the common peasant is transformed into a “Proletariat”, a social class that does manual labour or works for wages. This brings forth Feudalism, the third stage. Land is owned by the aristocracy who exploits the peasantry that work it. The peasant produces more food and the aristocracy sells it to others. Buying and selling creates a class of merchants and capitalists. Soon, they start to seek a share in the political pie. Because of the eventual growth of population and commerce, feudal society begins to accumulate capital and comes to be structured around commodities and profit. And Capitalism arrives. The wealthy merchants and factory owners (Bourgeoisie) obtain political power and exploit the workers (Proletariat). The working class thus experiences alienation. Well. One might say capitalism is the Marxist version of the Roman Catholic Church! The clergy plays the role of Bourgeoisie. The laity fits the slot of the exploited Proletariat. The Bourgeoisie fattens themselves on the sweat and blood of the Proletariat!! Praise the Lord!
When Karl Marx divided history into four epochs, he was deeply influenced by Hegel, the 19th century German philosopher. Hegel was working within a tradition in Germany in which it was standard to divide history into four great phases. And that tradition was established in Reformation Germany by Thomas Muentzer (circa 1489 – 1525). He was not a Marxist since Marxism took birth several centuries later. Muentzer was a Christian preacher and radical theologian of the early Reformation. Muentzer had taken this idea from the Biblical Book of Daniel. It is linked to the story of a dream that Babylonian King Nebuchadnezzar saw. In his dream, the king saw a gigantic statue, which had four sections below its golden head, made of four different materials. Daniel interpreted it as the four future kingdoms or epochs of history. Beyond that it was supposed to be apocalypse. So Marx’s theory of history, although fleshed out with an enormous volume of data, was essentially taken from Jewish apocalyptic traditions. Nevertheless, Marxism had a wider appeal since Marx, with his detailed scholarship, promoted himself as a scientist rather than a theologian.
Incidentally, the theory of ‘Dialectical Materialism’ propounded by Marxism does not expect Capitalism to stay put for long. It suggests that each stage of history holds within itself the seed to upset it to usher in the next stage. Marxism conceives Socialism as the fifth stage. It is the state of the dictatorship of the Proletariat. There is fair distribution of food, goods and services according to need. Profits are shared by all. The middle class comes to understand that equality is superior to private ownership. But even Socialism does not stand forever. There is a sixth and final stage, which is Communism. Everyone unites for the common good. Money and government is no longer needed and society is perfectly classless. It is a state of eternal bliss for the working class. As all nations reach this stage, the world turns stateless. There is no occasion for rivalries or wars. All the evils of Capitalism are finally rooted out. It is the great and eternal golden age of Communism.
The Communists imagine that their idea of the progress of history was based on scientific analysis. They claim that their scientific approach has the capacity to foretell the future in terms of the consequences of the class struggle. It is true that their predictions about future history have turned out to be pathetically wrong. Yet, Marxism believes that it has a scientific key to the understanding of history. So, one would be hesitant to admit that Marxism could have anything to do with religious faith. But the truth is that the Marxist idea of the ultimate victory of the working class (Proletariat) over the capitalists (Bourgeoisie) is an idea carried by the religious belief in apocalypse. Marxism even nurtured a millennial view in that it looks forward to a final struggle, a great judgment visiting upon an evil world of Capitalism, out of which a purified world of Communism would emerge. That new world would be paradise on earth for a particular section of humankind. This is exactly what apocalypticism articulate. Marxist ideology names this section of people as the ‘working classes or Proletariat. Christianity calls this remnant as the people who had their names written down in the ‘Book of Life’.
But there is a significant difference between these two ideologies. This difference relates to the agent that causes this upheaval to usher in this utopia for the chosen. The apocalyptic illusions of the Christian faith are anchored on the Second Coming of Christ. Prior to it, the earth will be cleaned up of all evils through a cataclysmic process culminating in the final battle fought between the forces of evil and the forces of virtue – the Battle of Armageddon. Once the process of cleaning is completed, there is to be the ‘White Throne Judgement’. Messiah (Jesus) sits on a white thrown and passes final verdicts on the fate of the people – both dead and alive. Those whose names are located in the ‘Book of Life’ gets admittance into the New Jerusalem – the glittering paradise. The rest would be thrown into the burning hellfire. Thus, apocalyptic life beyond the Last Judgement is to be off this earth – in heaven, in hell, in another sphere, and beyond history, beyond time.
Obviously, both Apocalypse and Marxism lead to the same goal. In both cases, the process is cataclysmic. In both cases, the process culminates in the egalitarian utopia of their fantasies, for a select group of world population. Christianity calls them the ‘saved’, Marxism calls them the Proletariat. So, when the Marxists exhort, “Workers of the world unite. You have nothing to lose but your chains,” they are signalling towards apocalypse – the stage where history of the world, as people currently know, reaches its end. The new history starts in the Proletarian state where the workers own everything and operate everything. The only notable difference between Apocalypse and Marxism is that while in Apocalypse it is the Messiah, who passes the Last Judgement, in Marxism, the Last Judgment is to be wrought on this earth by human beings fighting revolutionary wars against other human beings.
The truth is that the man, who first gave a call to the workers to unite against their oppressive masters, was a not a Marxist ideologue but Thomas Muentzer, a Christian preacher and compatriot of Marx. He united the German peasants and led them in a revolution against the feudal princes. He had believed that God was acting through him to demolish the feudal system to vest power into the hands of the peasants. Unfortunately, Muentzer was far ahead of his times. And he had to fail. When the final showdown came in 1525, the peasants were arrayed against the German princes and their army. Thomas Muentzer continued to assure them, even at the last moment, that it was the apocalyptic moment foretold in the Biblical Book of Revelation. They were singing hymns awaiting a glorious triumph in the end.
The princes loaded their canons. But Muentzer assured the peasants that he would catch the cannonballs in his shirtsleeves. The canons were loaded and he cavalry prepared to charge. The peasants were singing, “Come, Holy Spirit,” believing that this battle was the final battle of Armageddon and that God was going to break in and stop it right there. The cannons fired; the knights charged. Out of the some 8,000 peasants led by Muentzer, about 5,000 lost their lives. And Muentzer himself was captured cowering under a bed, tortured, executed. The very fact that the state, the symbol of oppression, had put Thomas Muentzer to death goes to prove that Muentzer was a prophet. He was the one really calling for the people to rise up against the oppression of the Bourgeoisie. Karl Marx was born some three hundred years later.
Incidentally, Marxism too starts with feudalism, moves into the era of the Bourgeoisie and then into the Proletarian utopia. And so it is a secular form of Biblical apocalypse. The so-called scientific approach of Marxism clearly tells you when and how these transitions form one stage to the next would occur. It identifies for you who the good guys are and who the bad guys are. And as apocalypse always does, it has the appropriate roles for everyone to play as events unravel towards the establishment of the paradise on earth. It brings them all together in a universal drama that would reach a culmination. For the believers of Biblical prophecies, it is the Kingdom of God. For the Marxist Communists, it is the perfect Communist state.
Just before the First World War, most Marxists thought that the coming of socialism was inevitable. They could just sit back and let it happen. And this is where the idea of social democracy arose. It is socialism achieved through parliamentary means and gradual legislation. But Lenin and the Russian Bolsheviks were unwilling to accept a gradual process of change. They lusted for speed and sought to force the pace of history. Lenin believed in taking a leap into the next stage of history. He pushed the Russian Revolution into Communism rather than Socialism. He believed that he could actually create a paradise on earth. The paradise of his visions had no inequalities, no private property and no money. The land is held in common and the factories are owned by the workers. And he believed that this meant an end to war and suffering. As Marx had put it, it would be the harbinger of an end to the alienation of humanity from nature. Many people would now agree that the consequences have been disastrous.
Christians, who had talked about the ‘Fall’ and the alienation of humanity from God, had seen the restoration of that human contact with God as essential to the coming age. But Karl Marx and Vladimir Lenin turned the Christian idea around. They talked about humanity becoming one with nature again. And it was essentially a religious goal, albeit an atheist one.
Let me conclude. What has been happening over the previous centuries is that Christians became disillusioned with the prophecies that Christ was coming back. It has been two thousand years! People became fed up with the long and infinite wait. This compelled the faithful to make a reassessment of the situation. Many started believing that it was essentially up to people themselves to work for a world that is better and more just. Christ would return once man does his part. Thus, the early 19th century socialists gave up on Jesus and God altogether. They came around to the view that while the creation of the earthly paradise of a just and equal society is a good and a noble end in itself, it is better to work towards it rather than waiting for the apocalypse foretold in the scriptures.
Marx believed that when socialism was established, the degenerative processes of history would end in the establishment of an earthly paradise. The literal interpretation of Biblical Apocalypse speaks of a thousand-year earthly rule of Christ, the Millennial Kingdom. That is supposed to be an era of peace and harmony. It is akin to Socialism of the Marxist ideology. The final stage of apocalypse is the descending of ‘New Jerusalem’ from heaven – the state of ultimate bliss for those whose names are found in the Book of Life. It is Communism in the Marxist ideology – the epoch of bliss for the Proletariat! Hallelujah!
(Adapted from my upcoming book on the History of Christianity)