Christianity, Materialism and the Undoing of Oppression

If Christians want to overturn the causes of oppression under capitalism, rather than naturalize them, they should make use of the materialism of Karl Marx. Materialist analysis reveals that Christians must struggle to liberate both oppressed and oppressors from the cycle of exploitation.
Few thinkers have inspired such fierce controversy and opposition as Karl Marx. It is to be expected, then, that Marxist theories are rarely given a fair hearing, particularly among those already committed to traditional religious and philosophical systems.  Marxism has had a particularly uneasy reception among Christians, which has given way to a widespread assumption that Marxism and Christianity are wholly incompatible with each other.  

When Christians criticize Marxism, they are often criticizing what they see as an inherently atheistic project. This criticism is not without some basis; after all, Marx and Engels and many of the Communist revolutionaries they inspired were indeed atheists. Some will say that atheism is baked into the entirety of Marx’s project, specifically into Marx’s materialist method and subsequent elabrations of that method in Marxist thought.

For many Christians, the word “materialism” conjures thoughts of atheism and anti-religious polemics centered around a denial of God and anything spiritual or transcendent. In other words, “materialism” is taken to mean “physicalism” or a theory that what is real is only that which can be apprehended through physical sensation and empirical evidence, that the physical world around us is all there is.  


The Meaning of Marx’s Materialism

To insist that materialism in the Marxian sense just means a crude physicalism the kind espoused by atheists like Richard Dawkins is an embarrassing straw man. Such a reading of materialism assumes that its opposite is religious faith rather than idealist philosophy. In fact, Marx’s distinctive materalism was constructed primarily to counter idealist philosophies popular in Germany at the time, philosophies that broadly maintained that ideas are the primary drivers of historical change and progress. In Marx’s early Theses on Feuerbach, he argued that both idealist philosophy and its critics failed to see that productive human activity and the social relations that mediate that activity are the real sources of change and progress.

Marx’s materialism is thus focused on the practical and historical nature of human activity. This sort of materialism emphasizes the flexibility in the way humans have organized society and production in history, and reveals that ideas are themselves constantly shaped and re-shaped by the material organization of productive society. Clearly, arguments that materialism means physicalism are more than just a sign that Marxism has been misunderstood — it is evidence that religious opponents of Marx’s thought have not attempted to read Marx on his own terms.     

Whatever real conflict there is between Marxism and Christianity, this dispute is little more than a confusion of terms. When Marx wrote on materialist method, he was not talking about the metaphysical status of the spiritual, he was talking about a hermeneutic of historical and sociological to analyze political and economic structures. Marx’s materialism is not primarily concerned with the question of whether there is a God.  His materialism, more than anything else, is meant to serve as the scientific, sociological basis for the project of socialism, offering an analysis of how material resources (the physical goods we all need to survive) are produced and distributed within society. Rather than a denial of the spiritual, it sets the scope and range of inquiry. It is not an analysis of eternal things, but of the temporal things of human society.  


Whence Christianity and Materialism?

It is certainly true that Christianity and of Marxism have different end goals in mind. Christianity is about God’s ultimate salvation of the human race, whereby God and humanity are reconciled. Marxism is concerned with overthrowing a political economy and its class system. Yet it would be a category error to say that these goals are necessarily in conflict with each other, and it would certainly be a strange and shallow reading of Christianity. 

Such a reading of Christianity suggests that Christians have no interest in the betterment of temporal affairs nor an interest in remedying oppression and injustice. Despite accusations to this effect from Marx himself, does any Christian truly believe this? Such a belief certainly contradicts the words of Christ in the Gospel, as in Matthew 25 when Christ not only urges his disciples to care for the poor but identifies himself with them. 

When Christians see oppression and exploitation, they can and should name injustice. But simply naming a sin of injustice is not the same as opposing, preventing or stopping the practice of this sin. Put otherwise, is our care for the poor no different than how we might care for the victims of some natural disaster? Climate change aside, we are rarely able to mitigate the sources of suffering caused by natural disasters ; we are not able to stop an earthquake from victimizing people in its wake. But poverty, particularly poverty in otherwise affluent societies, is not some impersonal disaster like an earthquake. It is a question, simply, of how the material resources needed for survival are socially distributed. Distribution of resources is a matter of justice, of rendering to each what they are due. So, because Christians believe in justice, they should seek to oppose the unjust distribution of resources of which poverty is always evidence.  

The question is, to what degree are Christians willing to oppose the practice of oppression and exploitation through unjust distribution? Is our obligation to the poor and oppressed a simple matter of providing relief for those suffering or does it extend to actually trying to stop that suffering? If the latter, then we will need a method to interpret, a means to understand the social dynamics and structures that cause such suffering. In the time since Marx, many Christians who have devoted their lives to undoing structures of poverty have in fact adopted Marx’s materialist methodology (often with a lot of creative correction and modification) and integrated it with theology. Such an approach is found in liberation theologians such as Gustavo Guttierez and Enrique Dussel and among the members of Slant, a short-lived Christian Marxist movement in Britain, represented by the likes of Herbert McCabe OP and Terry Eagleton. It is not only possible for Christians to adopt materialism; Christians have in fact done so to great effect.


Putting Materialist Analysis to Work

Understanding the contemporary political landscape and the dynamics of power at work within our society seems like a monumental task. Anyone looking at the world and asking “what’s going on?” faces an enormous array of different answers. Fortunately, there is no need to reinvent the wheel: the materialist method developed by Marx is as applicable today as it was nearly 200 years ago.  The material relations he analyzed have not been abrogated since the time of his writing. Today, as in the time of Marx, the production and distribution of material goods is controlled by capitalists and the vast majority of humans experience exploitation in capitalist workplaces.

Unlike other forms of political analysis, such as the idealist theories against which materialism was developed, materialism takes a scientific approach to the empirical data of power and change in human society, the actual material resources of society. It is scientific in the way any scientific method is: it is a method of research committed to organizing and testing data in order to gain knowledge. In this case, the data being considered is the production and distribution of material goods in a society for the survival of its members and their posterity. Materialism zeroes in on the material basis, conditions, and relations of which power is made.  

When this data is considered closely, we notice something almost immediately: there is one group of people who control these goods, and another who produce them for this group. That is to say, analyzing this data reveals that material relations are based on class. Materialism, by examining how power is able to exert itself and induce change, reveals that there is a dominant class in capitalist society whose power derives from their ownership of property. Such an analysis is grounded, beginning by assessing the basic material needs and struggles of societies. You could say that the materialist method is the scientific version of “follow the money.” 


Taking Sides in the Struggle for Justice

A materialist analysis of capitalism reveals the insufficiency of trying to undo poverty and injustice solely through moral and ethical invocations. Antagonistic classes are a structural feature of the capitalist system; they are not willed into existence by a faction of especially greedy capitalists or envious workers. The struggle between capitalists and workers emerges out of the structural imperatives capitalists must respond to: accumulation of capital, reinvestment, technological innovation, and exploitation of labor, all in order to expand profits. To cease this activity is to cease to be a capitalist.

Thus, while moral condemnations and reforms of capitalism are an important component of fighting injustice, a material analysis dictates that Christians should side with workers and the poor in their concrete struggles to disempower capitalist rule. As Gustavo Gutierrez insisted, Christian engagement in the class struggle against capitalism is an act of concrete love towards both the poor and capitalists, as it breaks the cycle of exploitation and oppression in which both the poor and capitalists are locked.

If we’re sincere about answering the question “what’s going on?” there is no better place to begin than with a material analysis. If we are serious about understanding politics, and much more importantly, about changing politics, we need to ground our analysis in the material interests and relations at play in society. Since the prevailing ideologies of society are the ones which reinforce dominant material relationships, and if we as Christians are interested in overturning these relationships, we will have to think outside of the established ideology. Specifically, we will have to find a different lens through which to view society. As Paul D’Amato puts it in The Meaning of Marxism, “The irony is that it is only by taking sides in a fight to change the world — on the side of the oppressed and exploited — will you have both the need and capacity to understand how things work” (21).

Since Christians ought to take the side of the oppressed and exploited in this fight, we should use a material analysis to understand this fight.  

James Egan holds an MA in Philosophy from Loyola University, Chicago, with a research focus on connections between religion, ethics and politics. He lives and works in Chicago where he is a founding member of the Archangel Foundation.


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