Irreconcilable Differences

When I was in college back in the dark ages I wrote a senior thesis titled “Dollars and Sense.” It wasn’t that good, but it started me on the path to investigating what seemed to me even then the inherent contradiction between Christianity and capitalism. I had read R.H.Tawney’s Religion and the Rise of Capitalism and later studied Max Weber’s The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. And while in college I read Karl Marx’s Capital. Later I taught courses in Marx’s theories, especially as found in the first volume of Capital. It makes for tough but fascinating reading and, no, it doesn’t make me a “commie” — it is well to know what tunes the devil is playing. I learned some important things.

To begin with, Marx was a lousy economist. Most agree about this. He based his economic theories on the labor theory of value, which insists that the value of a commodity is determined by how much “homogeneous” labor goes into the making of it. This theory has since been dismissed out of hand. But while he wasn’t a very good economist, Marx was an excellent moralist. In fact, if you look closely, his moral theory comes right out of the New Testament as does much of ethical theory in the West. I doubt that Marx would have admitted that, however, as he thought religion the “opiate of the people.” But it remains the case.

He was deeply disturbed by the fact that private ownership of the means of production under capitalism requires that human beings have to sell their labor, thereby becoming commodities themselves. This reduces persons to things. The capitalist, while admittedly taking risks, exerts little labor of his own while exploiting the labor of others. That is, he uses other people while growing rich himself. The further problem, as Marx saw it, was that the man (or woman) who labors is separated from the product he or she makes . He called this “alienation.” And it was these factors, all of them moral considerations, that Marx believed would bring capitalism to an end.

In Marx’s view, the moral contradictions within capitalism would eventually bring about a revolution that would result in socialism in which the state would end up owning the means of production thereby allowing the workers to begin to realize the actual worth of their labor. But this was to be a transitional stage to communism, an egalitarian society in which all owned the means of production, no one exploited anyone, there was no alienation of labor, and everyone would enjoy the fruits of their labors. This, of course, is an ideal and it is surprisingly like the ideals of Christianity. Indeed, it might describe life in a monastery.

We must be careful not to confuse the communism of Marx with what we called “communist” states, such as Russia under Stalin, or China or Cuba. These were or are, strictly, not communistic states at all. They are socialist/totalitarian states run by a small group of powerful men who denied all rights to their citizens and ran things with an iron hand. Under communism, as Marx saw it, there would be no political state — it would “wither away.”

In the end, the most interesting part of this intellectual journey, for me, was coming to the realization that the basic principles of capitalism — whether they be viewed through the eyes of critics like Marx or the sympathetic eyes of Christian thinkers like Tawney and Weber — are in direct opposition to the ideals put forth in the New Testament. There is simply no way a doctrine that talks about giving away one’s wealth and not serving “Mammon” could be reconciled with a doctrine that is all about accumulating as much wealth as possible, though attempts have been made.

Thus, those who in this society embrace what they call “democratic freedom” (while meaning free-enterprise capitalism) and who at the same time call themselves Christians, are living a lie. As I mentioned in an earlier blog: you can’t have it both ways. And any attempts at compromise will be awkward at best, though there are a great many decent, charitable people in this country who do good while at the same time doing well. That is possible.

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