Karl Marx Is Dead—And So Is Dialectical Materialism (for the most part)


Nietzsche famously said, “God is dead.” His great intellectual forebear, Karl Marx, was born on this date in 1818, just five years after Søren Kierkegaard, who has the same birthday. Marx is perhaps the best-known atheist of the 19th century. He grew up in a German-Jewish home. But it is said that he converted to Lutheranism when he was only six years old. Either it didn’t take, or it didn’t last.

Karl Marx (1818-1883)

Karl Marx (1818-1883)

He was a militant atheist during his college years at Bonn and Berlin. He was drawn to a group called “the Young Hegelians.” A major figure of this group was Ludwig Feuerbach, who influenced Marx and probably inspired much of the atheist element in Marx’s “dialectical materialism.” For Feuerbach, God is nothing more than a projection of the human imagination. Religion is but a dream. And it is a dream with a mixed reputation. It expresses the guilt and remorse characteristic of the human condition, and then pretends to offer a solution. Humans find it pretty hard to escape this fantasy, since it serves a useful purpose.

Marx extended the motif, calling religion “the opiate of the people.” More drug than dream. The corrective he envisioned would replace the need for a beneficent transcendent being with a social arrangement that would ensure tranquility and economic stability. His dialectical materialism provided the metaphysical framework for his communist utopianism. As materialist, he asserted that all is matter, including the human person. But his materialism affirms an evolutionary history that leads dialectically to utopian finality, where society progresses from “each according to his ability, to each according to his need.” The path to this ideal condition would be painful but necessary. It would be mediated by revolution.

Sadly, this much of the Marxist vision has been realized; but its glorious outcome has been more nightmare than dream. Neither Marx nor Feuerbach offered any real arguments against the existence of God. Instead, they embrace the nonexistence of God as a kind of article of faith. They imagined that all who believe in God do so without objective warrant. But pervasive belief in God must be explained—and got rid of—somehow. Thus they offered psychological and sociological explanations for religious belief. This created space for Marx’s theoretical speculations, which gained surprising traction in his day. His dialectical materialism is mostly a thing of the past. Communism has been exposed as a vicious means for dictatorship rather than equality. But the attitude persists that religion is a private matter that tends rather to debase humanity than to realize humanity’s highest aspirations.

This is a powerful catalyst for secularism. If religion is ungrounded, the most it can offer is private solace. But the heart grows restless with solace that has no objective ground. And so humanity turns to substitutes, seeking always to make a better life without God. It matters not whether God is dead—as Nietzsche proclaimed. What matters is whether the heart appropriates what reason supports. Our need for spiritual solutions to pervasive problems is some evidence that spiritual solutions do exist. But that possibility can only be taken seriously if evidence for religious truth is considered fairly and objectively. No path to a better world is worth trying if it doesn’t start there.

As I noted in a previous post for today, Søren Kiekegaard sought to awaken recognition of these facts about humanity and spiritual values. Too bad Marx didn’t listen to Kiekegaard.

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