“The human being is in the most literal sense a political animal, not merely a gregarious animal, but an animal which can individuate itself only in the midst of society.” –Karl Marx
I just listened to a couple episodes of a podcast (episode i, episode ii) that I recently discovered, which is distributed by the Christian Humanist network. The podcast is called “City of Man” and it’s a show about politics from a Christian perspective hosted by two academics, Ed Song (who is a self-proclaimed liberal) and Coyle Neal (a conservative). The episodes I listened to were a two-part series on Marxism, and I have to say that Ed and Coyle did a decent job summing up marxist theory, and they were fair…for the most part. I say “for the most part” because both Ed and Coyle were very adamant about making sure everyone knew they were NOT marxists in any way. The weird, paranoid disclaimers were almost comical.
That aside, the only other part of the two-episode show that made me cringe was Coyle’s argument against/dismissal of marxism based on the incompatibility of the doctrine of “original sin” and “utopia.” His claim, in a nutshell, was that at the heart of marxism is a utopian ideal and the assumption that humans are intrinsically good. Coyle suggested that marxism, when taken to its logical end, will always end in gulags and re-education camps despite how much we change social conditions because, after all, humans are inherently “fallen” creatures. I can’t count how many times I’ve heard this and I must say that I seriously CANNOT stand this argument from conservatives, especially conservative Christians. It must be in a conservative handbook somewhere or something. A few thoughts:
I’ll say right up front that if we’re dismissing philosophers and their perceived teachings based on past atrocities that were committed in their names, then Christianity should have been discontinued a long time ago. Similarly, It’s bizarre to me to hear a Christian be skeptical of some version of “utopia.” If the Kingdom of Heaven is not a utopian concept then I don’t now what one is. I don’t agree with Ayn Rand about anything except when she says that Christianity is the “best kindergarten of communism possible.”
OK, original sin.
It’s worth pointing out that Original Sin is not a “biblical” concept (i.e. that phrase is nowhere in the bible), but in marxism episode ii Coyle says, “Christians must have both the idea of man as created in the image of God and the idea of original sin.” I don’t think that’s necessarily the case, BUT there are many flavors of Christians who have both a doctrine of “original sin” and of imago dei and consider themselves to be marxists as well. (Tangentially related to this point, I’m curious why these two Christian thinkers didn’t touch on or even acknowledge the existence of Christian socialism and/or Christian anarchism in this series? ((e.g. folks like Dorothy Day and Peter Maurin, liberation theologians and people like Gutierrez, or even folks like MLK ((who was a socialist!)), Tolstoy or Jacque Ellul were all influenced by Marx to some degree…))
Additionally, on this topic of sin, I think it’s a good idea to simply reverse the weird protestant formula of “sin causing death” and instead use the more Jewish and Eastern Orthodox version of “death causing sin”; trust me, this goes a long way in improving ones anthropological view, or understanding of human nature. Secondly (and relatedly), regarding original sin specifically, we don’t need to think of ourselves as morally stained and lacking in some metaphysical way ala Augustine, Calvin and Hobbes. We can read the creation story in Genesis as a theodicy instead of some weird soteriology. Accordingly, we (Christians) should heed the criticism from our Jewish friends, for instance, and recognize that the Augustinan/Calvanistic doctrine of original sin is actually profoundly hostile to the central teachings of the Jewish Scriptures. My blog post talks more about this.
Finally, in regard to marxism necessarily and logically leading to gulags and re-education camps, Edward was right to push back on this in episode ii, I’m glad he did. Changing social conditions does help things. Further, it’s worth noting that it took centuries for the transition from feudalism to capitalism to take place, particularly in Europe. There were a number of efforts in various cities across Europe to establish what we now look back on and call capitalist experiments, many of them lasted weeks, months, or years, but it took a whole host of conditions to come together to give the system we now call capitalism the conditions necessary for it to gel as a new way of doing things. This is a perfectly reasonable model to keep in mind when thinking about how the next system will come to be, after capitalism. Because there will be a new system, capitalism is not the last stop on this train. It’s not. All systems are born, evolve and die. The Soviet Union, China, Cuba, Vietnam are examples of experiments along the way (and are better classified as State Capitalist and/or Social Authoritarian states) that have achieved some things, and failed in others. The next experiments that are coming will learn from them in a manner rather replicating how capitalism emerged out of feudalism.
UPDATE: This post was adapted from a comment I left on the City of Man facebook page and Coyle Neal, one of the hosts, has responded to me there.
Painting above: Malevich, Girls in a Field 1928-1929