Many conservatives see in Marxism their greatest fears for the most serious danger facing America—with the word connoting deep evil and malicious, corrosive intent.
As fate would have it, one of our editors, Jacob, a conservative Latter-day Saint man, has “fallen in” with two self-identified Marxists—who he considers dear friends. These are men Jacob respects and deeply cares about, even if their disagreements are still serious and substantial.
Given the extent to which fears of alleged “Marxist” advancements on the left play a role in this consequential election, we wanted to inquire directly into how this looks from the perspective of those who in some way actually identify as Marxists. In what follows, we ask direct questions of Arthur and Phil about a range of pressing areas, from Joe Biden to Black Lives Matters—as well as the extent of overlap between Latter-day Saint communitarian teachings and Marx’s own vision. As you will see, Phil and Arthur don’t always agree on everything, thus revealing that there are important ideological disagreements among leftists, just as there are among conservatives.
Would you agree that the Democratic party has swung much closer to leftist, Marxist aspirations in recent years?
Arthur: Yes and No. First, I’d like to say that I think the Democratic Party is designed to be a place where genuine leftist ideas go to die or be co-opted (just as I think the Republican Party is designed to be a place where genuinely libertarian ideas go to die or be co-opted). So, even ideas that lean “left” are distorted by the Democratic Party so as to keep the crony capitalist “center” in power. But, yes, the Democratic Party is certainly swinging in the direction of what one might call “statist socialism.” But what is almost never recognized in our American conversation is how much they depart from Marx’s vision of socialism or “economic democracy” (i.e. democratic principles extended beyond the political sphere out into the economic sphere of life) which actually aims at a condition of society in which the State has “withered away.” This robust and essentially State-less civil society is what Marx called “communism”—a society in which people have gradually learned to live more cooperatively and (please hear this, my conservative friends) more responsibly, thereby having less (or even no) need for a “State,” as such. The Democrats do not seem to have on their agenda (or even on their radar!) this central Marxist goal of eventually obviating (or at least lessening) the need for a State in which top-down, centralized “coercion” plays a role. They seem, rather, to have “more (and bigger) government” on their agenda, which I think any Marxist (and conservative alike) should find alarming. Marxism without the Marxist goal (however unrealizable that goal may or may not be) of the withering away of the State (with its inevitable powers of coercion) is, in my view, dangerous. The question asked of every socialist policy should be: how does this advance the self-emancipation of the working class; (and again, please hear this, my conservative friends) how does this advance the mature taking of responsibility for ownership of the means of life?
I know how sad it makes many religious people when they are misquoted and misinterpreted, when it comes to what the Bible means, etc. What I’m suggesting is that the same kind of distortion and misapplication of original principles is happening here. For instance, people may be surprised to hear what Marx said about using government to impose some sort of “order” from above:
“We are not among those communists who are out to destroy personal liberty, who wish to turn the world into one huge barrack or into a gigantic workhouse. There certainly are some communists who, with an easy conscience, refuse to countenance personal liberty and would like to shuffle it out of the world because they consider that it is a hindrance to complete harmony. But we have no desire to exchange freedom for equality. We are convinced … that in no social order will personal freedom be so assured as in a society based upon communal ownership… [Let us put] our hands to work in order to establish a democratic state wherein each party would be able by word or in writing to win a majority over to its ideas …“
By believing that violent evil-doers are on the march, they get to be in a war of righteousness against them
Phil: To me, the idea that the Democratic party is “leftist” is preposterous. I find even more preposterous the idea that it’s Marxist. The fact that so many people think these things is an indicator of the success Republican politicians have had in their efforts to brand their political opponents as in favor of things that they are not in favor of and to brand them as “unAmerican.” This success is also shown in the fact that many Americans think that “leftist” means “in favor of violence,” wishing to overthrow the government, etc. These ideas are false, plain and simple. Alas, this is a time when facts matter little; instead what matters is what feels good and/or feels righteous. What matters also is what sells and what gets one a following. Thus: much of what people believe, and then share with each other as true, is simply made-up.
This is ironic, in that, while many conservatives believe (as I believe) that truth is real and important, they’re nonetheless unfortunately caught up in the same media environment and the associated relativism of prioritizing what feels good and feels right. Like all of us, they’re tempted by the desire to feel that they are part of a righteous group. By believing that violent evil-doers are on the march, they get to be in a war of righteousness against them. By deciding that all that is good is under attack by evil-doers, they get to be proud of their perseverance against them. If any facts arise that seem to contradict these beliefs (e.g. the observation that President Obama consistently pursued moderate, middle-of-the-road economic policies that did not challenge big companies), that problem can be solved by deciding that those “facts” were planted by the “leftist media”; thus there is no need to investigate.
Dear conservatives: I am a leftist, and I believe in truth, family, love, commitment, and personal responsibility. I do not believe in violence. I oppose relativism. I oppose a government take-over of private enterprise. And I do not hate rich people, or conservatives, or the police. Granted, my idea of family is not conservative when it comes to family structure (e.g. who gets married to whom). Also granted, my idea about personal responsibility includes the idea that being a good person in one’s own private life is not enough to solve our larger social problems, to take care of each other, or to create and maintain justice. We also need to act together through government in a variety of ways, both by means of rules and regulations and by means of support for economic structures that allow the economy to work for everybody. Nonetheless, we have much in common. We would discover that if we actually talked to each other, in good faith and at length, about family, truth, love, commitment, or responsibility.
One of the considerable fears of people who might otherwise vote for Biden over President Trump is that—quite despite his center-left leanings—he would end up being a “puppet” for a very different set of priorities. To what extent is it fair to see former Vice President Biden as a “Trojan Horse” for a more radical leftist agenda?
Phil: Why not base what you think about a person on what they’ve said and done throughout their lives? Using that method, one can only conclude that Biden is not a leftist. In fact, it’s not even close (unfortunately). Granted, there’s much that I admire about Biden. I think he’s a decent, good-hearted person. Also, I agree with some of his policy commitments and what I see in his policy history. Nonetheless, to me, his political stance and record put him squarely in the American political center. Sure, he’ll probably pursue some policies that will make the economy a bit fairer. Thus I’ll feel fine when I vote for him. There is, however, no reason to believe that he’ll pursue the policies that I believe are needed to make the economy truly fair.
Anyway, why frame the conversation in this way? What not ask instead: How come the conservatives who decry the left agenda don’t take the time to specify what is in it? And why don’t they then offer evidence to support those claims? I think it’s because those conservatives (and others) are more concerned with believing that there’s a demon menace afoot: a violent, immoral, unAmerican group of evil-doers. Why? I think it’s because that belief provides a way to make sense of the feelings of powerlessness and uncertainty they’re plagued with and provides a thing to rally against. Specifically, I think it offers a feeling of power, power that one has because one knows something that not everyone knows (as in “I’m not helpless; I know the real truth! They can’t fool me!”). And let’s face it, most people have little power over many aspects of their lives (please know that when I say “most people” I’m referring to both white people and people of color).
In light of all this, the idea of a “Trojan Horse” can be seen as a clever way to sidestep questions about whether or not the Democratic Party even has a “leftist agenda” because it suggests that the answers are so secret that they can’t be discovered!
Arthur: Unlike Phil, I certainly do not plan on voting for Biden (we Marxists are anything but a monolithic voting block!). I won’t be voting for Trump, either. From (what I would call) the actual left, Biden is seen as anything but a Trojan Horse for leftist politics. He is seen, rather, more as a Wall Street shill…a sellout…a traitor to leftist ideals. He is a centrist (and that is not a good thing to be, in my view). It is precisely in the center where the danger lies, in my opinion. In the center is where the kind of crony capitalist compromises are made which feed into the hands of both big business and big government (primarily the interests of the “military-industrial complex”). Generally, the farther left you are, the more you are in favor of decentralized political power (more “people power”) and a widening of the ownership of the means of life (the means of production), which, interestingly enough, President Reagan himself also saw as a key to securing more liberty for more people. And the farther left you go, the more you are against militaristic imperialism (which is where some libertarians share common ground with us Marxists). So, I wish that Biden (Mr. Iraq War) were a Trojan Horse for a more radical left agenda! To me, he is a “no-good imperialist” and nothing but the ever-so-slightly left(ish) wing of the crony capitalist Extreme Center (as was Obama).
It has often been claimed in recent months that Black Lives Matters reflects Marxist aspirations—particularly in the rationalization of property destruction and violence. To what extent would you say this is true and fair—versus not?
Arthur: Property destruction and violence are not Marxist aspirations. Period.
The Marxist aspiration is to democratize and widen the ownership of property. Not destroy it.
I heard an interview in which one of the founders of BLM says that she is a “trained Marxist.” I don’t really know what being a “trained Marxist” means to her. In context (see here for the clip and here for the complete interview and a transcript), it sounds to me like she, in a very self-reflective and thoughtful tone, was seeking to address what the interviewer called a “loving critique from an elder of the struggle” that perhaps the BLM movement might “fizzle out” due to a potential “lack of ideological direction.” So it appears she is trying to defend herself from people who think she may not be sufficiently “ideological”! She doesn’t strike me as an ideological fanatic, but, rather, a serious activist, with sound ideological “training” (and not just in Marxism).
The interaction between Marxism (which itself can be understood differently by different people, and by different generations—a point she herself makes) and “identity politics” is a complex (and often fraught) one. So there is no simple answer to what her being a “trained Marxist” means to her, and how that shows up in her activism. I think it’s worth hearing her in her own words, so please listen to the interview, but at least read the “Marxist” portion (in context!), which I have copied here:
BALL: … how do you respond to that particular critique? Again, a loving critique from an elder of the struggle….that a more clear ideological structuring might be of some value here. ….
CULLORS: I think that the criticism is helpful…..I think of a lot of things. The first thing, I think, is that we actually do have an ideological frame. Myself and Alicia in particular are trained organizers. We are trained Marxists. We are super-versed on, sort of, ideological theories. And I think that what we really tried to do is build a movement that could be utilized by many, many black folk. We don’t necessarily want to be the vanguard of this movement. I think we’ve tried to put out a political frame that’s about centering who we think are the most vulnerable amongst the black community, to really fight for all of our lives. And I do think that we have some clear direction around where we want to take this movement. …. What I do think, though, is folks–especially folks who have been trained in a particular way want to hear certain things from us, that we’re not sort of framing it in the same ways that maybe another generation….has. But I think it’s important that people know that the Black Lives Matter movement doesn’t just live online, although there’s many people who utilize it online. We’re in a different set of circumstances, a different generation that–social media may feel like it’s diluting the larger ideological frame. But I argue that it’s not.
I would also urge my conservative friends who, almost without exception, revere our own American Revolution, to remember that that revolution involved the destruction of private property (the Boston Tea Party), the confiscation of loyalist property, violent protests against State violence (the Boston Massacre), and violent personal attacks on people who defended the status quo (tarring & feathering). Social change is, as a matter of simple historical fact, rarely peaceful. It never fails to astound me just how often people who most vocally condemn so-called “leftist” violence tend to overlook, whitewash or even praise violence committed by so-called “patriots” and by the American imperialist empire itself.
Phil: I honestly believe, Jacob, that the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement is not a Marxist movement. Certainly, some people in the movement are Marxists in one way or another, but I have yet to see (admittedly, I do not see everything!) any signs being held up at BLM rallies saying “we demand worker-owned businesses!”, or “we demand an end to private property!” Neither have I found anything on the BLM website calling for radical reductions in economic inequality or for laws that would significantly reduce corporate power.
Also, please realize that, as far as I can tell, the BLM movement is not a centrally controlled organization that is run by some small group of people so much as it is an idea and a rallying cry that resonated with many and that then took off.
That idea is, to my light, simple: “Black Lives Matter” means—guess what—that black lives matter! It does not mean that police lives don’t matter. Also, those words— “Black Lives Matter”—speak to, and come from, the hearts of people whose experiences (as well as the experiences of their parents, grandparents, great-grandparents, etc.) have persuaded them that many of those who “protect” their communities don’t think that black lives matter, and instead automatically react to a black man with a worry that that man is angry and dangerous. To those who believe that that’s not true, I say this: fair enough. I suggest having conversations with those who think it is true.
I know you believe Jordan Peterson has misrepresented Marxism in important ways. But I have to admit finding his argument persuasive when he suggests that we’re seeing on the political left an expansion of basic Marxist class analysis that sees the poor in fundamental conflict with the rich (with wider prosperity for all dependent on fundamental revisions to the deep economic system). When many of us hear the ceaseless talk in American society placing men in fundamental opposition to women, black in fundamental opposition to whites, gay folks in fundamental opposition to straight (and religious conservatives)—each embodying demands for fundamental, “systemic” change to make things right—it does start to feel similar in its rhetoric and tone of how we’ve interpreted Marxist aspirations in the past: setting up a war of Us vs. Them. Is it fair to make this connection—and to attribute some of the Us vs. Them narrative specifically to Marxist ideology itself?
Phil: What does the issue of gay vs. straight have to with the economy? It certainly has nothing to do with Marxism, which, right or wrong, is not a creeping “ideology” and instead a theory about the economy based on a study of history. Also, if you put aside Marx’s hyperbole that he used on occasion to try to motivate people to change the world, you will see that he offers an alternative to Us vs. Them. He instead blames the economic structure of private property for the divide between the classes. In other words, he does not say that owners are bad people. He instead says that most owners must, to stay in the position of owners, exploit the workers. And thus argues for the end of the class system. In other words, the revolution is to be a system revolution, not the abolition of any persons.
As for American oppositional narratives, they go way back. Many got started at moments in history when people of wealth and power thought they would lose their social position unless they divided low-paid people from each other, so they told some of them terrible things about the others. Thus in the 1600s, when the supply of indentured servants began to dwindle, rich landowners began enslaving Africans as an alternative, while also telling the exploited white sharecroppers that all their problems were caused by the supposedly “dangerous” blacks. Later, when slavery ended, a few rich white landowners fought off reconstruction in much the same way, this time through the vehicle of the Ku Klux Klan, which was their invention.
Arthur: I would indeed assert, in the strongest possible terms, that Jordan Peterson does in fact profoundly misrepresent Marxist ideas. I would urge you to examine what I have said about that elsewhere (see: Jordan Peterson & Karl Marx).
An “expansion of Marxist analysis”, perhaps…but stretched very far past the breaking point. One may take any principle and “abstract” and “expand” it past its original context, thereby distorting it beyond recognition. Also, I would point out that many religious viewpoints ALSO set up an “us” vs. “them,” sometimes resulting in violence on a vast scale (the Inquisition, the Crusades, Protestant vs. Catholic wars in many European countries, the forced Christianization of New World peoples, etc.); so seeing the world as in some way consisting of different groups with different interests is hardly unique to Marxism!
As for Marx’s class analysis, I would ask you to simply ask one question: Is it true? Is it true what Marx says about the division of society into a small minority who own the means of life and a large majority of those who do not? To what degree is it true that those who own the world sometimes (perhaps even often) use violence and oppression, and means both “legal” and illegal, to maintain their position of ownership of and power over other people and their labor? I would argue that Marx is observing a truth about the world: ruling classes tend to use oppressive and violent means to maintain their power over other people. There is an “us” and there is a “them” (though it never should be assumed which side any particular individual person is on; there may be wealthy capitalists—like Engels!—genuinely desiring a more democratic ownership of the world, and there may be working-class individuals wanting nothing but personal advantage).
For Marxists, the goal is to unite the vast majority of people in opposition to this destructive and alienating elite rule—NOT to divide the majority of people among themselves. Those who try to divide the population are probably trying to conquer it, rather than help people liberate themselves. That would be the antithesis of anything Marx was aiming for. In practice, most Marxists, as well as progressives and liberals, find themselves trying to make connections and strategic alliances among oppressed classes of people…not divide them or pit them against each other.
But the sort of ‘identity politics’ we see playing out today is, in some ways, antithetical to the Marxist view of how to unite society. Many, perhaps most, Marxists (myself included) see an over-emphasis on sexuality, gender, race, etc. as endangering what should be the focus, as Gar Alperovitz would put it in his “Pluralist Commonwealth” model, namely, changing who owns the world, and moving towards a more cooperative ownership of the means of life. If more people owned the means of life (more small businesses, more cooperatively owned business, more local economic independence, etc.), then social power itself would be more widely spread out among people, and the social issue questions would decrease in importance. After all, if you are not dependent on a capitalist to make a living, or on a government for an income, then you are freer to live as you would wish, and to let others live as they would wish.
Marxists are sometimes attacked by the more ‘identity politics’ sorts of folks for not being “politically correct” enough. Nevertheless, we recognize that people have experienced powerlessness and oppression for reasons other than being “working class.” Women, gays, blacks…these “classes” of people have, in fact, experienced centuries of discrimination and disenfranchisement (to put it mildly) because of their identities as women, gays, and blacks. So “identity politics” is important. But, again, as a Marxist, I think it is a mistake to over-emphasize those identities and to thereby under-emphasize what to us seems the more underlying and ultimately more important class distinction, namely, that of “capitalist owner” and “working-class employee.”
You recently sent me an article you thought made some important points, Arthur, that advocated, among other things, that “the US empire is the single most destructive force on this planet and is corrupt from root to flower” and “the US-centralized oligarchic empire is corrupt beyond redemption and should be completely dismantled.” Do you both really believe that? (If so, you must understand how threatening an argument it is to many religious conservatives—so if you could speak to that in your answer, it would be helpful.)
Arthur: Why in heaven’s name would opposition to an “oligarchic empire” be threatening to a religious person? Rome wasn’t exactly the friend of the early Christians, and EVERY empire is created and maintained by breaking at least two of the 10 commandments: thou shalt not steal, and thou shalt not murder. In my view, many Christians are infected with a kind of heresy which makes their religion at least partly a kind of nationalism rather than true Christianity, so that any challenge to anything American (including American imperialism!?!) is felt as a threat to their identity. Some Christians strike me as believing more in “Americanism” (and the ideology of American Exceptionalism) than in Christianity. The oligarchic empire which I truly hate and want to see destroyed is the empire which (for just one example among many) trains dictators and terrorists at the School of the Americas in Fort Benning, Georgia, and sends them back to their (mostly Latin American) countries to maim, torture, kill, destroy, and terrorize men, women, and children. The United States was created by a revolution against the greatest world empire of its time
The United States was created by a revolution against the greatest world empire of its time
I agree with Martin Luther King: the United States is the “greatest purveyor of violence in the world”—not because this country is somehow “essentially evil,” or inherently “worse” than other countries (it’s not); but simply because it is, at this point in history, the biggest worldly power. And if you believe that Satan has been given a kind of dominion over this world (and, as a Christian myself, I do believe that), then it shouldn’t be too surprising that he would find a way to use the greatest worldly power for his purposes.
But that doesn’t mean that I want America to be destroyed. I want the American empire to be destroyed. If you can’t distinguish between being opposed to American imperialism (which I am) and being opposed to America itself (which I am not), then I would say you need to do some more thinking. You also might want to read up on what some of the founding fathers had to say about the danger of empire and foreign entanglements. The United States was created by a revolution against the greatest world empire of its time. The fact that it has in turn become a world empire only speaks to the tragedy of human history.
True, I want fundamental change here at home, too. I want to end what I would call the “rule of capital,” in much the same spirit as Abraham Lincoln expressed it when he voiced his concerns about the liberty-imperiling “effort to place capital on an equal footing with, if not above, labor in the structure of government.” I would say that capital has already established a kind of tyrannous control over the government. But you can read more about my views on that here: The Two Souls of Socialism: A Fork in the Road.
The kind of “patriotism” I ascribe to is perhaps best modeled by Howard Zinn. And one of the best articles I have found about the dangers of American Exceptionalism can be read here: American Exceptionalism is a Dangerous Myth.
Phil: Arthur has spoken well, so I’ll try to speak to a different aspect of what I see going on here. Jacob, you talk a lot, both here and elsewhere, about how conservatives feel. Specifically, you ask non-conservatives to understand that conservatives feel under attack, and you suggest that leftist claims might be a major cause of these feelings. Let me ask: aren’t conservatives believers in personal responsibility? And don’t you believe that truth exists? In the name of those values, I ask that you assess Arthur’s claims about empire based on their truthfulness, not how they make you feel, I also ask that you take personal responsibility for your feelings. Many religious writings about how to live one’s life assert something also asserted both by non-religious Buddhist philosophy and by Stoicism: one’s feelings are in one’s own control.
Fair enough, Phil. More than taking personal responsibility for feelings, Christians are called on to turn the other cheek when attacked. Thanks, both of you for your answers—and even for being willing to push-back on what feels unfair on the right. Because I want to understand even more the true differences between us, let me say a little more. Latter-day Saints believe—like many other Christians—that America is a “choice” and promised land. Speaking of America, the prophet Lehi anciently taught that “the Lord hath covenanted this land unto…all those who should be led out of other countries by the hand of the Lord” and that “that there shall none come into this land save they shall be brought by the hand of the Lord.” He also went on to warn, however, that it shall be “a land of liberty” only unto those who serve God—and that “if iniquity shall abound cursed shall be the land for their sakes.” While those who “keep his commandments” here, according to Lehi, “shall be blessed [and “shall prosper”] “upon the face of this land,” the inhabitants are warned that if they reject God and “dwindle in unbelief,” they will lose God’s support and be “scattered and smitten.”
At a time when the Saints were being driven and persecuted in the United States itself, Joseph Smith was taught in a text we believe to be inspired that “the laws and constitution of the people [in America]…I have suffered to be established, and should be maintained for the rights and protection of all flesh, according to just and holy principles” The Lord elaborates on why America was established: “That every man may act in doctrine and principle pertaining to futurity, according to the moral agency which I have given unto him, that every man may be accountable for his own sins in the day of judgment. Therefore, it is not right that any man should be in bondage one to another. And for this purpose have I established the Constitution of this land, by the hands of wise men whom I raised up unto this very purpose, and redeemed the land by the shedding of blood.”
I suspect some of this may sound nonsense to you both—but I quote these two sources extensively for a reason. Because it’s deeply what many of us believe—and why some of the condemnations of America feel so threatening to us right now. It’s also central to the message of the Book of Mormon, and its narrative of two previous civilizations in American being destroyed. I’d like to hear whether any of this feels truthful to either of you—especially (a) whether you see anything precious, or inspired about America’s foundations? And (b) whether you think America’s struggles might reflect a departure from its ideals and promise?
Phil: In my view, the ideas of a chosen land and a chosen people are dangerous, wherever they arise, and regardless of which group of people, nation, or land is said to be chosen. Also, it seems to be hubris. Is that it? Is it pride that makes you see criticism of America as an attack on “American civilization”? Why not see such open critique as a healthy aspect of America?
Maybe this will reassure you. In my view, much of today’s criticism of the U.S. is based on American ideals. Also, in my view, some of the ideals and ideas that were at the heart of the American revolution are great ideas that deserve to be defended. One of those ideals is rule of law. Rule of laws means—and only exists if—no person is above the law and accountability to the law is protected because it’s institutionalized, e.g., via the existence of a wall of separation between the criminal justice system and the political system, by the existence of independent courts that make decisions based on precedent and on written, publicly available laws, and by the use by those courts of written opinions that refer to the law and earlier decisions as their justification.
Arthur: Of COURSE I ascribe to the ideals upon which this country was founded. To. Its. Ideals. NOT to its actual historical actions (slavery, the conquest of North America, imperialist subversion of Latin American democracy, endless war, arms dealer to the world, etc.).
And, for what’s it’s worth, Marx and Engels also admired much about America:
“…self-government on the American model, and this is what we too must have. How self-government is to be organized and how we can manage, without a bureaucracy has been shown to us by America….”
And there is Marx’s letter of congratulations for Abraham Lincoln to consider (a snippet of which I share here):
Sir: We congratulate the American people upon your re-election by a large majority. If resistance to the Slave Power was the reserved watchword of your first election, the triumphant war cry of your re-election is Death to Slavery.
The workingmen of Europe feel sure that, as the American War of Independence initiated a new era of ascendancy for the middle class, so the American Antislavery War will do for the working classes. They consider it an earnest of the epoch to come that it fell to the lot of Abraham Lincoln, the single-minded son of the working class, to lead his country through the matchless struggle for the rescue of an enchained race and the reconstruction of a social world.
I don’t ascribe to any God-given uniqueness of America, however. I (as an Orthodox-leaning Christian) consider American Exceptionalism to be an American Protestant heresy. But, yes, I do consider the “American experiment” to represent a quantum leap in the long arc of the establishment of more democratic forms of self-rule. However, because the America of 1776 was also a class dictatorship (only the class of white male property owners could vote), and because it did nothing to “check and balance” the economic power of that class, it has largely failed to deliver on its promises to “we the people.” That is why I am a socialist: I believe the next “quantum leap” has to be that of “checking and balancing” economic power, and of widening (democratizing) the ownership of productive property (which is what Marx called “the means of life”).
I think America’s “struggles” generally reflect not a deviation from the founding ideals but rather progress towards a more universal realization of the rights of citizenship which were originally restricted to the ruling class of 1776. Since that time, the ruling class has stubbornly resisted every single movement towards the democratization of power. It has been a long battle—sometimes a bloody one (the civil war being the most obviously bloody of them all, but the Labor Wars of the early 1900s, and the later civil rights struggles were also pretty darn bloody)—and each step has been “co-opted” to some extent by the powers-that-be. But, still, I see it, generally, as “progress.” The America of 1776 is no place I would ever want to live. It was a brutal tyranny for the vast majority of the inhabitants of the land. But, it was still a step in the right direction.
You’ve quipped over the years, Arthur, that Latter-day Saints are “secretly Marxist” given our communitarian history and future aspirations, along with teachings like this in our scripture that “it is not given that one man should possess that which is above another, wherefore the world lieth in sin.”
The usual response you hear among Latter-day Saints is that God’s ways prioritize agency and freedom in moving society forward—whereas some of the more secular, perhaps Marxist-oriented approaches seem to involve more coercion and force—even violently so (see “Socialism Says Must; Christianity Says Should”).
But you’ve complicated that argument, Arthur—by arguing that Marx himself (if not all of his later self-proclaimed comrades) valued freedom and democratic deliberation while pointing out that Christian eschatology anticipates a day when Christ Himself will use violent force to fundamentally revise human society (even to the point of many people dying). As you put it, “the main difference between us and you is that you believe Jesus will do the dirty work.”
I find this all fascinating—and want to hear your reflections on the overlap between a Latter-day Saint view like I hold—and the views each of you hold.
Arthur: Well, I am both Christian and Marxist, and given the nature of these two “world views,” the former must hold a deeper and more ultimate claim on me. After all, Marxism is nothing more than one entirely human way of understanding (and seeking to change) certain aspects of the world, whereas traditional Christianity claims to be the entering into the world of the Creator God Himself to redeem and save it with His own (Trinitarian) Self.
Granted, Christ’s most revolutionary command—to “love your enemies and pray for them”—is not very Marxist! I personally think Marxist goals can be best achieved by loving one’s enemies, but I don’t know many Marxists who make that a priority. On that score, I’d say that Christianity parts ways with Marxism…and with most human ideologies for that matter (just as it parts ways with the natural bent of virtually every single human ego on the planet!). I don’t see the world as something to “win,” as many Marxists would. I see changing the ownership of the world as a means of creating a more loving, cooperative world—but “losing one’s soul” to achieve that would never be worth it. If it requires the initiation of “violent force” against any non-aggressor, then, to me, that would endanger one’s soul. Marx and his group of communists, however, claimed that they were prepared only to use violence in self-defense…not in an aggressive way; and I think history bears out the Marxist claim that most violence has been initiated by the “reactionaries” i.e. those who want to maintain ruling class power over other people. It should probably also be noted in this context that Marx wrote that “there are countries— such as America, England…– where the workers can attain their goal by peaceful means.”
But Marx’s goal of “communism” IS very Christian. That is, to aim for a society where the organizing principle is “from each according to his or her abilities, to each according to his or her needs”—”an association, in which the free development of each is the condition for the free development of all”—sounds pretty darn compatible with Christianity to me.
And as for “liberty,” let me reiterate that it is Marx who distinguished himself from what would later become the Stalinist sort of “communist,” saying, “we are not among those communists who are out to destroy personal liberty, who wish to turn the world into one huge barrack or into a gigantic workhouse… We have no desire to exchange freedom for equality.”
And, elsewhere Marx criticizes what he calls “crude communism” (in contrast to the sort of communism he was aiming for). This “crude communism” (he writes) “aims to destroy everything which is incapable of being possessed by everyone.” And “wishes to eliminate talent, etc., by force.” Marx continues:
Immediate physical possession seems to [this crude communism] the unique goal of life and existence….The role of worker is not abolished but is extended to all men….[W]omen become communal and common property…..Universal envy setting itself up as a power is only a camouflaged form of cupidity which reestablishes itself and satisfies itself in a different way. The thoughts of every individual private property are…directed against any wealthier private property, in the form of envy and the desire to reduce everything to a common level….. Crude communism is only the culmination of such envy and leveling-down on the basis of a preconceived minimum…..[It is a] regression to the unnatural simplicity of the poor and wantless individual who has not only not surpassed private property but has not yet even attained to it. The [crude communist] community is only a community of work and of equality of wages paid out by the communal capital, by the community as universal capitalist.
In what we have just quoted above, we see Marx excoriating a kind of “communism” which he detests—confronting the same kind of communism which his right-wing critics detest (without knowing he has beaten them to the critique they are making of the Stalinist sort of communism).
Given all this, Jacob, I would say that, at least in socio-economic terms, and even in some more spiritual aspirations, Zion is Communism, and Communism is Zion. They are not the same, obviously, but they, as you say, “overlap” in some ways.
How to get there…? Well, I believe the power of persuasion, personal integrity, and cooperative efforts are the way forward, and that all steps in that direction should be as voluntary as possible. However, if what I think your religion calls the “secret combinations” choose to resist, and if they use force and violence to keep their power, then I grudgingly acknowledge that Marx was right: force (self-defensive force) is probably going to have to be used against them (e.g. putting some “banksters” in jail, as Iceland has done). As you, I think, admit in your eschatology, it is Jesus who does the dirty work. As a Christian, I, too, am content to leave it to Him, and believe my own fallen nature is not up to the task of the sort of righteous judgment required for any truly righteous “putting things right.” As a Marxist, however, I acknowledge that it may be up to us to fight (literally fight) for the kind of world we truly want. And I have yet to fully reconcile those two sides of myself…..
Phil: I am not very knowledgeable when it comes to the Latter-day Saint theology, and thus won’t presume to speak of how much overlap exists between Mormonism and Marxism. I do, however, know that there is overlap. After all, Christianity, more generally speaking, has a great deal in common with the ideals that are attributed to Jesus: the celebration of love for others and charity, the idea that all humans are of equal value and worth, that all humans are equal in their essential nature (are “made in the image of God”), and that the possession of riches by some, when others have almost nothing, is a moral problem. Thus it is not surprising that one version of Christian theology calls itself liberation theology. As I understand it, liberation theology, which has many adherents in Latin America, argues that Jesus was in a sense a socialist visionary.
This might interest you: I reject—and consider deeply dangerous—one aspect of Marx’s theory (as I understand that theory), and in my view that aspect has much in common with some versions of Christianity. I’m happy to say that this aspect of Marxism (which some Marxists do not even see in Marx, much less endorse) can be rejected without harm to what I see as the valuable parts of Marxism, reflected in its analysis of the structural elements of capitalism, confronting the injustices that capitalism imposes on rich and poor alike, and advancing the possibility of workers being owners and self-employers. What I am unhappy to say, however, is that this dangerous part of Marx’s theory was emphasized by many who followed Marx and who helped turn Marx’s theory into “Marxism” (of which there are many versions). I’m referring to the idea that history will (through human efforts, at the right times) bring a permanent end to the contradictions and injustices of human existence, put an end to the gap between “existence and essence,” and bring a time when there will be no need to struggle for justice or live with fundamental tradeoffs. Isn’t that a secular version of the story of the second coming of Christ? Maybe. In my view, this is an idea that has led to the slaughter of millions and the “re-education” and/or imprisonment of millions of others—as people in power have pursued their visions of a better society with heartbreaking cruelty and force.
As a final question, I’d like to ask you to share anything else you wish the people in the United States would consider more right now at this critical juncture. If you had a soapbox, and all of America was listening, what would you say?
Phil: I ask this of myself and recommend it to all: When trying to understand the world, other people, and where you stand, start with the assumption that every person in the world cares for and believes in family, commitment to others, personal responsibility, and basic fairness for all.
Assume as well that the differences between political stances stem from the possession of different worldviews, not from any lack of humanity on anyone’s part. By “worldview” I mean one’s ideas about what has happened in history, about what counts as a “family,” about the sources and types of injustice that are now afoot, about the systems and/or actions that are needed to create more fairness, and about what systems are needed to enable people to successfully exercise personal responsibility.
With these assumptions in mind: listen to others and seek to understand your opponents.
When sharing your views: make it clear to those to whom you speak that you do not question their basic humanity.
Then, see what happens!
Arthur: Seek the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. Together.