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Is Christianity compatible with Marxism or materialism?

According to Terry Eagleton, yes.

As far as religion goes, it is worth pointing out that there have been Jewish Marxists, Islamic Marxists, and Christian Marxists who champion so-called liberation theology. All of them are materialists in Marx’s sense of the word. In fact, Eleanor Marx, Marx’s daughter, reports that Marx once told her mother that if she wanted “satisfaction of her metaphysical needs” she should find them in the Jewish prophets rather than in the Secular Society she sometimes attended. Marxist materialism is not a set of statements about the cosos, such as “Everything is made out of atoms” or “There is no God.” It is a theory of how historical animals function (Why Marx Was Right, 157-158).



Terry Eagleton once remarked that Marx made “the characteristically bourgeois mistake of confusing morality with moralism” (After Theory, 143).  For many on the left, morals, being good, let alone following the Good, should have nothing to do with economics and politics. Such talk is illusory at best and ideological at worst.

Yet Marx himself was profoundly concerned about morals. Writing about the degradations of capitalism was not simply an intellectual exercise for Marx.

So why is such a confusion between morality and moralism a “bourgeois” mistake and not just a mistake in general? In Christianity and Marxism, Denys Turner offers an explanation:

It is an error of substance to call by the name ‘morality’ what has been done under that name by philosophers from Kant to Hare. For what we now call morality is in radical discontinuity with that classical conception – of which Marxism is the inheritor – which was of a scientific investigation of the social order that can generate norms of action. The discontinuity of the contemporary bourgeois with the classical conception is, therefore, important at the very least from the point of view of the studies of ideologies… It is… a conceptual response governed by the social pressure of a class society that we have to bifurcate the ‘moral’ from the ‘scientific’. It is very important, therefore, that Marxists recognize what has happened: that ‘morality’ in its bourgeois sense has abandoned the role which was once assigned to it on the classical conception and has been redefined so as to work against that role (85).

According to Turner, Marx failed to grasp the nuances or historical situatedness of moral philosophy, regarding all instances of morality as prototypically Kantian; that is, as abstract, universal, etc. Marx seems to have missed the fact that the separation of facts or scientific investigation on the one hand, and morals on the other, is itself a product of a class-based society. The “bourgeois” mistake, then, is to fail to see that the proper study of morality – the classical conception – has nothing to do with abstract rules and everything to do with the political order and concrete social relations.

Regardless of Marx’s mistake, both Eagleton and Turner point out that Marx was certainly right to disparage the Kantian morality of his time, which sadly infected so much of Christian moral philosophy, even up to present day.

Speaking to Christians in general, Turner writes that “in the bourgeois world moral views come exceedingly cheap.” He continues:

It is worrying for a Christian that all too often it is Christians themselves who are in practice the meanest buyers in the moral market. They, who talk so readily and unproblematically about (of all things) ‘love’, seem quite to have forgotten that Christianity, embodied in the life of its founder, came not so much with news about love, but rather about its price. And if Christians have forgotten what that price is, they may reasonably doubt whether they have been trading in the genuine article, rather than a counterfeit. Marxism may perhaps serve to remind them that the price of love is revolution and, ultimately, death (x).

One of the best books of the year to come across my desk was Steve Fraser’s The Age of Acquiescence: The Life and Death of American Resistance to Organized Wealth and Power. Fraser argues that America is living through nothing less than a new gilded age. But unlike the first gilded age, an age characterized by mass uprisings, powerful unions, robber barons, Christian Socialists, and a whole host of vociferous groups and lively characters, our age, by contrast, is one of stark acquiescence.

This is not to say, simply, that we’ve become lazy. Rather, Fraser makes a case that we’ve lost the logic of resistance. The moneyed-class has become so formidable in our second gilded age, that we no longer possess the language of how to reinvigorate the common good in the face of concentrated private power. This includes the notable loss of religious language condemning the desire for riches and Mammon worship.

Fraser pulls no punches. The left, with its preoccupation of identity-politics at the expense of working class values, played right into the hands of the moneyed-elite. “The social liberalism of identity politics also set in motion a logic of fragmentation that could chisel away at the fragile solidarity of an earlier era,” writes Fraser (360). The rise of the individual – a product, by the way of the right – perpetuates the myth of achieving inner psychic freedom at the cost of social solidarity and the common good. The new Left has bought into this myth; hence the rise of the “creative class” and the gig economy, whereby liberals champion “flexible” schedules and employers. Thus so, “professionalism serves as a psychological wage,” writes Fraser, “compensating for economic deterioration” (335).

What really stands out in Fraser work is his profound grasp on the dignity of labor. With this, Fraser is perfectly in line with the late Christopher Lasch. In fact, Lasch’s greatest work, The True and Only Heaven, is footnoted throughout Fraser’s analysis; so much so that Lasch’s diagnosis forms the bedrock of Fraser’s main criticism: the ascendency of market society corresponds to the demise of dignified labor.

In order then to once again regain our cultural and economic foothold, the mass of people will have to regain the dignity of work. As Fraser writes,

Work itself had lost its cultural gravitas. What in part qualified the American Revolution as a legitimate overturning of an ancien regime was its political emancipation of labor. Until that time, work was considered a disqualifying disability for participating in public life. It entailed a degree of deference to patrons and a narrow-minded preoccupation with day-to-day affairs that undermined the possibility of disinterested public service. By opening up the possibility of democracy, the Revolution removed, in theory, that crippling impairment and erased an immemorial chasm between those who worked and those who didn’t need to, and by inference this bestowed honor on laboring mankind, a recognition that was to infuse American political culture for generations.

But in our new era, the nature of work, the abuse of work, exploitation at work, and all the prophecies and jeremiads, the condemnations and glorifications embedded in laboring humanity no longer occupied center stage in the theater of public life. The eclipse of the work ethic as a spiritual justification for labor may be liberating. But the spiritless work regimen left behind carries with it no higher justification. This disenchantment is also a disempowerment (363).

Astute readers will recognize the implicit theological currents operating here, including “laboring humanity”, references to the spirit, and of course, “disenchantment.” That Fraser relies so heavily upon religious or spiritual concepts to make his point should give us pause. Elsewhere, when criticising identity politics and personal “rights,” Fraser says,

Hibernating inside this “material girl” quest for more stuff and self-improvement is a sacramental quest for transcendence, reveries of what might be, a “transubstantiation of goods, using products and gear to create a magical realm in which all is harmony, happiness, and contentment” (305).

Fraser’s language here should sound familiar (at least for readers of this blog), as the “transubstantiation” observation is from Terry Eagleton.

The Age of Acquiescence give us much to think about. It seems fair to say that if we are serious about the reinvigoration of dignified productive labor, the Left is going to need to add some theological tools to its arsenal. Henry Demarest Lloyd once said that only a restoration of ancient truths, particularly, that the first will be last and the last will be first, can bring back “the republic in which all join their labor that the poorest may be fed, the weakest defended… Not until then can the forces be reversed which generate those obnoxious persons – our fittest” (Quoted in Fraser, 162).


Some notes for an upcoming research project on the Anglo-Catholic Socialist movement. 

In a London Review of Books article, Terry Eagleton nicely summarizes the Anglo-Catholic Socialist critique of the Oxford movement:

Most other Victorian sages from Carlyle to Morris were keenly engaged with the Condition of England question, appalled by the predatory nature of industrial capitalism and unsparing in their moral denunciations of it. With Newman, by contrast, we find a mind loftily aloof from Chartism, bread riots and the Factory Acts, more preoccupied with the Arian heresy of the fourth century than with typhoid epidemics in English slums.

And as F.D. Maurice keenly observed about the Oxford Movement as a whole, “their error, I think, consists in opposing to the spirit of this present age, the spirit of a former age, instead of the ever-living and active Spirit of God” (quoted in Ramsey, 36).

In the eyes of the Anglo-Catholic Socialists, the Tractarians suffered from a severe bout of abstract theology. What they failed to emphasize was the sense that if Christ is lord of all, if the bread and the wine bind us to the commonalty of Christ, then church must take on a distinct political role: not only in combating the encroachment of the liberal state, as Pusey surely did, but in challenging the ascendancy of the capitalist economy.


From Terry Eagleton’s review of Thomas Aquinas: A Portrait by Denys Turner:

Aquinas believed in the soul, as Daniel Dennett and Richard Dawkins do not; but one reason he did so was because he thought it yielded the richest possible understanding of the lump of matter known as the body. As Wittgenstein once remarked: if you want an image of the soul, look at the body. The soul for Thomas is not some ghostly extra, as it was for the Platonising Christians of his time; it is not to be seen as a spiritual kidney or spectral pancreas. The question ‘Whereabouts in the body is the soul?’ would to his mind involve a category mistake, as though one were to ask how close to the left armpit one’s envy was located. For Aquinas, the soul is everywhere in the body precisely because it is what he calls, after Aristotle, the ‘form’ of it, meaning the way in which it is uniquely organised to be expressive of meaning. The soul is not some sort of thing, but the distinctive way in which a particular piece of matter is alive. It is quite as visible as a club foot. To claim that a spider has a different sort of soul from a human being is in Thomas’s view simply to say that it has a different form of life. What distinguishes an animal body from a hat or a hosepipe is the fact that it is signifying, communicative, self-transformative stuff, in contrast to the meaninglessly dumb matter of so much contemporary materialism. It is, in Turner’s phrase, ‘matter articulate’.

Eagleton goes on to highlight that the mind’s natural object for Aquinas was not God, but material objects; especially the material object of Jesus.

Though he is often accused of bloodless scholastic rationalism, he is in some ways closer to the empiricists. The mind’s natural object, he insisted, is not God, the self or ideas but material things. Any knowledge we have of God has to start here, and in particular with that pathetic failure of a material object known as Jesus. (In a splendid flourish, Turner writes of Jesus as ‘extra-judicially executed on the majority recommendation of a corrupt committee of very religious people’.)

In a recent lecture at the National Cathedral, Terry Eagleton discusses the radical nature of Christian faith. Yet he also notes an implicit problem within the grammar of, “having faith.”

The tortured, mutilated body of a political criminal who was done to death because he spoke out for love and justice, that this is what it all comes down to, this is it and no mistake. This is the single stark signifier of human history; all the rest is delusion, idolatry, false idealism, cheap sentimentalism. Those who can see this are commonly known as “having faith,” a terrible way of talking. It sounds like ‘having an i-pod.’

Indeed, much of our language about faith is terrible. How does one’s faith not become a commodity, some valiant act of abstract will, or worse yet, slip into fideism? Brad Gregory helpfully traces the history of this development. As he argues, it was when the Continental reformers domesticated and subordinated caritas – the substantial bond of Trinitarian community mediated over time – that faith became a possession characterized by obedience. This helps us to see, “why in the early twenty-first century many Christians understand ethics less as the pursuit of holiness linked to human flourishing as part of the imitation of Christ, than in legalistic terms as ‘following the rules’ lest punishment ensue.”[1] The punishment in question of course is either going to hell or failing to purchase the right products, including ideas or beliefs.

Would we then be better off in jettisoning the language of “having faith” or even, “faith alone?” In Tokens of Trust, Williams notes that the Creeds, as the earliest articulation of the faith, insist not on belief but upon trust or fidelity. Williams writes,

I believe in God the Father almighty’ isn’t the first in a set of answers to the question, ‘How many ideas or pictures have I inside my head?’ as if God were the name of one more doubtful thing like UFOs and ghosts to add to the list of the furniture of my imagination. It is the beginning of a series of statements about where I find the anchorage in my life, where I find solid ground, home.[2]

Williams understanding seems much closer to the mark of recalling the crucified body of a tortured and political criminal as “the single stark signifier of human history.” His grasp on faith-as-trust also sheds light on how facile understandings of sola fide can become so woefully inadequate. Faith is not simply about my Jesus or my belief, but about the Jesus who encounters us within history and material reality; namely, the church, the sacraments and the stranger. In this light, staking one’s life on the Logos incarnate, crucified and resurrected as the heart of the world and all reality, seems much more pronounced than simply having the latest gadget or fancy new set of ideas abstracted from the community of Christ’s body given over time.

[1] Gregory, The Unintended Reformation, 210.

[2] Williams, Tokens of Trust, 6.

“The political left, however, cannot define the political in this purely technical way, since its brand of emancipatory politics inescapably involves questions of value. The problem for some traditional leftist thought was that the more you tried to firm up your political agenda, making it scientific, materialist affair rather than an idle utopian dream, the more you threatened to discredit the very values it aimed to realize. It seemed impossible to establish, say, the idea of justice on a scientific basis; so what exactly did you denounce capitalism, slavery or sexism in the name of? You cannot describe someone as oppressed unless you have some dim notion of what not being oppressed might look like, and why being oppressed is a bad idea in the first place. And this involves normative judgements, which then makes politics look uncomfortably like ethics” (148-9).

~ After Theory.

Ins’t it funny that it is now the Right, and often the Christian Right, which regards markets in purely mechanical terms and as utterly agnostic?

From Eagleton’s recent review of Dostoevsky’s The Grand Inquisitor:

“The Grand Inquisitor ranks among those who regard God as their adversary. He believes that like a brutal despot, God loads on men and women more than they can bear; the burden he loads on them is known not as tithe or tax but freedom. However, this overlooks God’s own solidarity with human weakness, which is known as Jesus. On Calvary, God proves feeble and fleshly even unto death. His only signifier is the tortured body of one who spoke out for love and justice and was done to death by the state. Only if one can look on this terrible failure and still live can one lay a foundation for anything more edifying. Only by being entombed in the earth can one reach for the sky. It is in the place of excrement, as Yeats reminds us, that love has pitched his mansion. Any moral idealism that refuses this truth is just so much ideology.

…It is the materialistically minded who like their religion to be otherworldly, in compensation for their own this-worldly crassness. It is not surprising that a material girl like Madonna should be attending classes on mysticism at the Kabbalah Center in Los Angeles. How else can she escape for a moment from her agents, minders, managers, hair stylists, and the rest? Surely salvation cannot lie in anything as prosaic as a cup of water and a crust of bread.”

Eagleton also takes the time to note America’s obsession for the positive thinking industry, which seems completely apropos :

“This blasphemous ideology, summarized in the common American lie that you can do anything you set your mind to, fails to acknowledge the frailty and finitude of the human, which is where the Inquisitor knows better. Also unlike the Inquisitor, this boundless optimism fails to acknowledge what one might call the terrorism of the ideal. Ideals are essential, but like the “law” for St. Paul, they can do no more than show you where you went wrong, but they cannot reveal to you how to go right. This is why Paul calls the law cursed. Ideals have the stiff-necked implacability of the Freudian superego, a faculty which encourages us to aspire beyond our powers, fail miserably, and then lapse into self-loathing. Idealism is the accomplice of violence and despair, not an antidote to them. The neoconservative desire to drag a barbaric world into the light of civilization is on display at Guantanamo Bay.”

Thanks a lot, Terry. As I’m about to catch a plane to watch the Giants play in San Francisco, I’ll have you’re “Football: a dear friend to capitalism” ringing in my ears.

Eagleton has made this argument before. If you really want social progress, you’ll probably have to do away with sport. This is not a novel idea, of course, the Romans had this figured out centuries ago. The best way to pacify a populace is to provide entertainment. But not just any type of entertainment; there’s a need to feel solidarity, a sense of “hero worship” and “blind loyalty;” a place where “men and women whose jobs make no intellectual demands can display erudition when recalling the game’s history or dissecting individual skills.”   In so many words, what is in no short supply at your average college football tailgater. “In a social order denuded of ceremony and symbolism, football steps in to enrich the aesthetic lives of people.”  If this were to come from anyone else besides Eagleton, you could accuse him of elitist snobbery.   But from a committed radical rising out of working class England? 

At the end of the day, it’s hard to argue against Eagleton here. The mystical sway that the sports industry holds over the lives of people is nothing short of amazing.  I think his logic is spot on and deeply unsettling. But hey, at least religion is no longer the opiate of the people.

From Eagleton’s new book, On Evil:

“People differ on the question of evil.  A recent poll reported that a belief in sin is highest in Northern Ireland (91 percent), and lowest in Denmark (29 percent).  Nobody with any firsthand acquaintance with that pathologically religious entity known as Northern Ireland (the greater part of Ulster) will be in the least amazed by that first finding.  Ulster Protestants clearly take a dimmer view of human existence than the hedonistic Danes.  One takes it that Danes, like most other people who have been reading the newspapers, do indeed believe in the reality of greed, child pornography, police violence, and the barefaced lies of the pharmaceutical companies.  It is just that they prefer not to call these things sins.  This may be because they think of sin as an offence against God rather than as an offence against other people.  It is not a distinction that the New Testament has much time for” (15).