Marxism is a philosophy that developed in 19th-century Germany from the views and ideas of Friedrich Engels and Karl Marx. It focuses primarily on economics and social class; namely, the struggle between the wealthy and the workers. Marxist ideologies are often associated with Communism, which came to be a dirty word during United States Senator Joseph McCarthy’s paranoia-fueled “Red Scare” in the 1950s. Marxism and Communism denounce capitalism and focus on common ownership and the liberation of the working class.
Karl Marx famously proclaimed that religion is “the opium of the people” and Marxism is resolute in its desire to abolish religion and thus liberate humanity from religion’s dominating and oppressing influence in all spheres of personal and social existence. This is understandable considering the context of Marx’s experience, as he lived in the aftermath of the French Revolution and witnessed the Catholic and Protestant churches’ abuse of power in favor of the prestigious bourgeoisie social class. Marxism viewed religion not just as a dumbing, numbing opiate but also as false hope for the poor and justification for the rich and the status quo.
Critics of Marxism have been aplenty, and include the philosopher Nicolas Berdyaev. He was born in the Kiev Governorate of the Russian Empire in 1874 and participated in the revolution that brought about the Soviet regime. Berdyaev’s socialist activities resulted in imprisonment and expulsion by the Bolsheviks in 1922. During his exile in the Russian north, Berdyaev found the social and political elements of extreme left-wing Marxism to be “best representing the interests of social justice.” (Andelson, 271)
Berdyaev developed a faith system that was existential and separate from traditional Christian church structures. Drawing on inspiration from the Marxist concept of a revolutionary social class, Berdyaev attempted to create a theoretical prototype of a proletariat whose consciousness is “open to transcendent reality, to the realities of absolute truth and justice.” (Andelson, 271)
Berdyaev would evolve beyond this ideology in later years as he gravitated more to traditional Christianity and focused on personal freedom and how it influenced one’s personality. A staunch opposor of totalitarianism, Berdyaev’s criticism of Marxism seemed enmeshed with his criticism of Communism. It was proposed that Berdyaev’s critiques were not objective but rather subjective, and influenced by his personal situation and resulting outlook. But one might argue: is this not inevitably the case for any philosopher or critic who cannot help but operate through the lens of their own egoic perceptions?
Berdyaev’s views seem almost self-contradictory. He decried long-standing systemic abuse of power and privilege, but wanted to maintain “all that is noble of the past.” Quite the slippery slope, in my humble purview. One must also ask: what was “noble” and who benefited from it? Equal to his critical view of “bourgeois complacency” was his opposition to “purely nihilistic change.” (Andelson, 273) So how do these somewhat conflicting juxtapositions factor into Berdyaev’s criticism of Marxism?
Berdyaev believed that a person’s destiny is to become “divine-human” – a transformational act (“theosis”) that recognizes the existence of God within; uniting the spirit and the body as one. Because of this inherent potential and the resulting integrated personality, he considered a person’s destiny and divinity to be of the utmost importance. This impassioned view is the foundation of Berdyaev’s criticism of Marxism.
Berdyaev asserts: “The lie of humanism consists in the acknowledgment of the self-sufficiency of man, in asserting that man may realise the fullness of his humanity… without God.” (Berdyaev, 139) He saw the objectification of people, indeed their dehumanization, as the inherent core of capitalism. As such, Berdyaev did agree with the economic particulars of Marxism which called for the consciousness-raising of the proletariat to break the chains that bound him to the “fetishism of commodities” (Andelson, 274) and the hopeless cycle of making the wealthy richer.
Where Berdyaev was most critical of Marxism was in his stark opposition to the Marxist denial of God which he interpreted as a denial of humankind itself and divine destiny. Marxism’s fundamental view of humanity was in sharp contrast to the heart of Berdyaev’s belief in a person’s inherent divinity. He considered the Marxist view to be “extremely crude… related to rationalist materialism” (Berdyaev, 221) and utterly devoid of the spirituality that he believes to be humanity’s true nature.
This is where I take a sharp turn from Berdyaev’s critique of Marxism and overall view. I agree with the importance of acknowledging a power larger than ourselves of which we are an integral part (my rough definition of spirituality), but that perspective is not dependent upon a belief in the traditional, monotheistic, capital-g God of Berdyaev’s fixation. He felt that the fatal flaw of Marxism is its disconnection from the source that makes individual freedom a possibility – the divine; humanity’s spiritual nature; the potential to actualize the divine within as the ultimate destiny.
In the matter of the ills of economics and the downfalls associated with materialism, Berdyaev found the Marxist solution to be severely lacking. Marxism focused on a revolution of industry and commerce, which Berdyaev decried in favor of his fervent belief in “spiritual rebirth” – the only guaranteed ticket to personal freedom. (Andelson, 276) This is a fair point… to an extent. If Berdyaev was referring to the inherent spiritual nature that I defined above, it seems a justified critique.
The essence of Berdyaev’s critique of Marxism is its denial of God which he felt left a person incomplete, disconnected, and lacking “any genuine interior goal.” (Andelson, 276) In Communism and Christians, Berdyaev emphatically stated “Communism wants to restore to man the working tools which have been alienated from him, but has no desire to give him back the spiritual element of which he has also been deprived.” (218) But what of the agnostic or atheist who has a connection with the mystery bigger than us that encompasses us, but does not include God in that spiritual context? Or what of the Buddhist, Jew, or Muslim who does not share a belief in Berdyaev’s Christian God?
Berdyaev was highly critical of the Marxist accusation that Christianity promoted submission and passivity, flipping it back in a turn of philosophical finger-pointing by asserting that it is in fact Marxism that denies creative energy and personal freedom through its hyperfocus on society which is the true suppressor and objectifier of humanity. I find this to be a defensive and weak critique as the dogma, doctrine, and historical activities of the Christian Church denote a system that operates with a rigged power structure of reward and punishment.
Until his death in 1948, Russian philosopher and Christian existentialist Nicolas Berdyaev believed that freedom is spiritual. Even if people are relieved of economic ills as Marxism promised, he warned that without nourishing the connective tissue of humanity’s divine nature, people will still be degraded and dehumanized; sucked dry and reduced to mere cogs in the social machine.
Berdyaev asserted that Marxism inherently denied spirituality and instead sought to triumph by means of logic over perceived irrationality. He saw the end goal of Marxism as being vapid and hollow since it was utterly devoid of the divine. In his ultimate (and rather dramatic) critique of Marxism, Berdyaev describes it as “a terrifying collectivism, without a human soul.” (Andelson, 280) While I do encourage spiritual connection and development, I can’t fully justify Berdyaev’s condemning criticism as I don’t find that the lack of God is a deal-breaker, least of all in the socioeconomic views of Marxism.
Andelson, Robert V. “Nicolas Berdyaev’s Critique of Marxism.” The American Journal of Economics and Sociology. Vol. 21, No. 3, July 1962. https://www.jstor.org/stable/3484707
Berdyaev, Nicolas. “Human Personality and Marxism.” Communism and Christians. Westminster: Newman Press, 1949.
Berdyaev, Nicolas. “The Human Personality and Superpersonal Values,” quoted in Nicolas Berdyaev – Captive of Freedom by Matthew Spinka. Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1950.