Last year, in the face of growing right-wing resentment, LeftWord Books and Tricontinental called on people around the world to celebrate the publication of The Communist Manifesto with “Red Books Day,” suggesting people get together and read the Manifesto aloud on the anniversary of its publication, February 21. This year, Vijay Prashad invited people to participate for the week leading up the Red Books Day by writing about one red book a day and asking others to do the same, so I thought I’d dust off this blog and offer a small set of contributions as a Catholic on the left, with the hope that it provides a comradely way in for other folks making their way through the weird world of leftism!
The first thing I ever read from Karl Marx was the Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844, a fragmentary but brilliant collection of Marx’s early writings assigned as a textbook in a class on Kierkegaard, Marx, and Nietzsche at my evangelical undergraduate school. The texts are famous for introducing Marx’s ideas of alienation, along with the opening salvos in his unraveling of capitalism’s economy. To appreciate what Marx opened up for me, allow me a little indulgence in articulating the bizarre worldview I had cobbled together.
When I signed up for this class, it was early in the Obama years. Coming out of the Bush era, I was a committed Christian anarchist, not because of any political experience, but because I was sure that anarchism was the obvious, straightforward political message of the Bible. Though this was clearly not the hermeneutic of most 00s evangelicals, evangelicalism had taught me to trust the Bible above everything and everyone else, pastors and politicians included. God told the Israelites that kings will abuse their power, and they shouldn’t ask for one (1 Samuel 8); in spite of all the conspiracies of earthly rulers, the psalmist takes comfort in God’s derisive laughter at them (Psalm 2); Jesus rejected the devil’s temptation to give him all the kingdoms of the world (Matthew 4) before being murdered by the state.
While most of the actual content of the Bible was lost on me as I tried to read it front to back, there seemed to be a clear, intuitive line of continuity where God’s sovereignty was repeatedly traded for the sovereignty of some inevitably corrupt human government. After reading Jacques Ellul’s Anarchy and Christianity and Leo Tolstoy’s The Kingdom of God is Within You at the end of high school, I was convinced that evangelicals had made a bad deal with the state, which I took to be a necessarily violent, anti-Christian institution. Bush might have courted the evangelical vote, but, I thought, he apparently never seriously read the Bible.
In the context of the class, Kierkegaard, preceding Marx, had finally given me a language to articulate some of the disconnect I felt between the evangelical world I was in and the biblicism it taught me to pursue. Kierkegaard accused his own 19th century Danish society of domesticating the radicality of Christianity into Christendom, bypassing an encounter with Christ in favor of the comforts of bourgeois life. While Kierkegaard himself led quite a bourgeois life, his pietism squared with my anarchism, and I felt more and more convinced that the real problem was that Christians had given up the Bible’s clear anti-statism for the spoils of worldly power.
The key, then, was to continually convert more deeply to an authentic Christian faith, to call the bluff of evangelicalism’s Christendom as a kind of postmodern prophet, complete with the embarrassing confidence of adolescence that makes Kierkegaard so appealing to so many young wayward evangelicals. Politics was piety and piety was politics; if there was any sociality to this vision, it was to call the community of Christians back to the terror of being alone with God, a God who might, as in Kierkegaard’s classic exploration of the Akedah in Fear and Trembling, demand even your own child–if Abraham could bind Isaac, I could sit out elections and denounce the political process (all, of course, from the safety of my own unexamined privileged position).
The political opposition that held this evangelical anarchism together was simple: Christianity demanded a radical pacifism premised on a singular relationship with God which would enable one to truly love one’s neighbor, whereas the state demanded coercion premised on an illusion of security that rejected faith in God’s providence and insulated people from encountering each other.
I can thank God that my pious anarchism was never the right-wing libertarian sort, and I had a suspicion toward capitalism, also shared and developed by Ellul and Tolstoy. But things got more complicated when I began to read the young Marx parse out the particular relationships between labor and capital. Though it would take a long time for me to move from being a Kierkegaardian-pacifist-anarchist-evangelical to being a Marxist Catholic, looking back at my underlining and marginalia of Marx’s 1844 essays reveals the seeds of a big shift. If the primary antagonism with my Christian faith at the time was violence and nonviolence, Marx revealed that more than the state was at work in an economy built on violence, and one would have to figure out the precise mechanisms of violence in capitalism to truly resist an economic, not just statist, temptation to worldly power. These were mechanisms that Kierkegaard, although sometimes critical of money and his own “present age,” was simply not capable of analyzing. The same went, it seemed to me, for Tolstoy and Ellul.
Yet since my own Christianity was doubling down on pietism via existentialism, I was also enamored with Marx’s famous analysis of alienation that permeates the manuscripts, an analysis that has made the early Marx a favorite among liberation theologians who read Marx as a prophet of freedom. Christian anarchists had taught me the state stood in the way of my authentic expression of Christianity, as an idol, and that one should be doubly suspicious if that state claimed to be Christian; Marx taught me how capitalism estranged me from my neighbor and myself, how the curious magic of money rendered arbitrary things equal, how working people were reduced to the level of machines, how the rich were permitted to enjoy their lives because of the suffering of others, etc.–and here, too, I thought with Kierkegaard right behind me, was an economy full of baptized Christians. Capitalism’s violence, I learned, was also preventing me and my neighbors from living into the fullness of life for which Jesus came to set us free.
Looking back, I still think coming into Marx by way of alienation was probably the best way in for an angsty evangelical. Alienation is a lot easier for a Christian to get their head around than a lot of Marx’s other writing. Passage after passage in the 1844 manuscripts bring up questions about the spiritual degradation capitalism foists onto everyone–worker and capitalist alike–and alienation connects more readily with Christian hope for a life of freedom than the dry analysis of commodities and value one finds in Capital (important and necessary as that analysis is!). It’s no surprise that the early manuscripts would be favorites among revolutionary Christians around the world. They show Marx beginning to sort through the noise of capitalist relations in order to detect the economic logic underneath, a logic that requires many to be poor so that a few can be rich–a theme that resonates handily with the Bible, arguably even moreso than opposition to the state.
The distance between my earlier evangelical reasons for being invested in Marx and now is hard to determine. My feelings on the state in general are certainly more nuanced, and the sort of leftish-fundamentalist biblicism of my politics is, thankfully, gone. But I also find that Marx’s alienation remains profoundly significant to me, including as a way of thinking through what my Christian faith calls me toward in a capitalist society. I’ve gone on to read a good deal more of Marx’s work, but, implicitly or explicitly, alienation remains the most promising point of contact for me when I talk with other Christians about capitalism. The manuscripts have been on my mind again lately as I’ve been reading Marxian Atheism by the socialist Indian Jesuit priest Sebastian Kappen. For Kappen, it’s the early Marx and his articulation of alienation that would prove most helpful in fighting for justice in India. As a Catholic, the concept also allows him to sympathize with the capitalists who are themselves roped into a process of alienation. In an essay called “Revolution: For What? By Whom?” in Marxian Atheism, Kappen writes:
“Under capitalism, not only the working class but also the capitalists are alienated. Alienated in the sense of being dehumanized; of not being able to develop one’s faculties, creativity, and freedom. Capitalism smoothers, and destroys humanity; not only of the working class but also of the employing class… Exploitation is not a common ground uniting all interested in overthrowing capitalism. But, alienation is…. When we speak of people as the agent of revolution, the term would include not only the exploited but also the alienated that are aware of their alienation and prepared to fight the system.”
Admittedly I still think exploitation is probably the most important unifying point against capitalism, given what Marx says about the unique role of exploited labor. But Kappen is one example among many Christians finding ways to engage the insights of the early Marx in a way that also compels him to imagine the political contours beyond the naivete of overly simplified oppositions between, say, Christians and “the state.”
While I think my Christian anarchism was an important phase, it was Marx, finally, who helped me find my way into understanding the ins and outs of capitalist society beyond an over-simplified biblical politics. And by clarifying what’s really going on in capitalism, Marx has also allowed me to think more effectively about what it would mean to be a Christian, informed by the Bible and more, navigating the brutalities of a capitalist society. One thing my adolescent piety politics got right was that to hear the word of Jesus puts one out of step with contemporary politics. It took an encounter with the early Marx to really show me how.