Walter Rauschenbusch No. 1: Christianity and the Social Crisis

As I sit down to write this morning, Russian troops are in the Ukraine. I ask myself, “Why sit down today and write a blog about the role of Christianity in the history of American social thought at the turn of the century?” C. S. Lewis was once required to defend the work of scholarship and thought in the midst of the Second World War and the West’s defense of freedom. He reminded his readers that the human race has always been in some form of crisis, and civilization has always has to make progress in the midst of social change and disorder:

The war creates no absolutely new situation: it simply aggravates the permanent human situation so that we can no longer ignore it. Human life has always been lived on the edge of a precipice. Human culture has always had to exist under the shadow of something infinitely more important than itself. If men had postponed the search for knowledge and beauty until they were secure, the search would never have began. [1]

This quote from Lewis is a reminder that important human achievements have and always will occur in the shadow of poverty, war, and human suffering. There is a propensity among modern people to be overly-concerned with any present crisis and to lose sight of eternity. As we shall see, the work of Walter Rauschenbusch speaks to us today in the midst of our present economic, social, political, and other uncertainties with a voice important to hear.

Walter Rauschenbusch

Walter Rauschenbusch (1861-1918) was born at the beginning of the American Civil War and died during the First World War. His life was bookended by conflict, and his work was dedicated to ameliorating the human suffering created by the Industrial Revolution. His father was a Lutheran minister. The son became an American Baptist minister, serving beginning in 1886 in an economically depressed area of New York City. It was an experience that changed his life, and his book, Christianity and the Social Crisis emerged from this experience and dedicated to those he pastored during these formative years. [2]

The book that made him famous was originally published in 1907 by which time Rauschenbusch was on the faculty of Rochester Theological Seminary, at the time a leading Protestant seminary in the United States. Christianity and the Social Crisis was and is the leading text in what is sometimes called, “The Social Gospel Movement” that powerfully impacted American Protestant thought in the early 20th Century and continues to influence political theology today. Rauschenbusch himself was influenced by the German theology of his day and relies on the insights of critical thinkers in outlining his position. In addition, he was influenced by the Socialist and Communist thinkers, though as we shall see, his position avoided some of their more radical ideas. His aim was to energize the Christian church in America to attack social evils.

Social Background

It is difficult for modern people to fully understand the upheaval in human society created by the industrial revolution, an upheaval that continues in some form to this day. People in the year 1700 lived pretty much as their parents and grandparents had lived as far as human memory extended. Economies were primarily agricultural and land was the primary source of economic and social wealth. With the industrial revolution, society changed dramatically. People were forced from the land and into cities, where the industrial revolution was creating opportunity, jobs and a new form of wealth. Families were fractured, as children left the land for the cities of Europe. Existing social forms were disrupted, and the burgeoning cities were often places of poverty and disease. Rauschenbusch saw the impact of all this during his years in ministering to a poor area of New York.

The Prophetic Voice in Old Testament History

Rauschenbusch uses an historical approach to building his case, moving from the Old Testament roots of the notion of the “Kingdom of God,” to Jesus’s interpretation of the Kingdom, to the early church’s embodiment of the idea, and on to the present day. Crucial to his analysis is the notion of a fundamentally political orientation of the Old Testament and especially of the prophets, and Jesus’ continuation of that tradition. In Christianity and the Current CrisisJesus is portrayed as a prophetic figure who stands against the injustice of his day in such a way as to create a permanent movement for social justice in human history. Therefore, for Rauschenbusch, “a comprehension of the essential purpose and spirit of the prophets is necessary for a comprehension of the purpose and spirit of Jesus and of genuine Christianity.” [3]

As opposed to what Rauschenbusch regards as a primitive state of religion focused on the worship of the gods to gain some control of nature, the prophetic impulse is inherently social. It urges a social reformation to create a more just society in the midst of social decay and disease. [4] The prophets saw the immorality and social decline of Israel and spoke a primarily moral and social message, calling their society to repentance and restoration. The “restoration” they had in mind was the restoration of the society of Israel as it developed from the emergence from the Egyptian captivity to the end of the prophetic age.

In Rauschenbusch’s view, Calvinism and the Reformed tradition, with its emphasis on morality in public life is the inheritor of the Old Testament prophetic tradition, which is one reason why the countries of Europe under the sway of Calvinistic ideas developed modern democracy. [5] His book is an attempt to rally the prophetic impact of Cristian faith to eradicate the social ills of his own day, similar to the way in which Christian faith impacted the society emerging from the Middle Ages.

An Organic Model of Society

Sitting beneath Rauschenbusch’s analysis is an organic view of society, which he believes that laisse fairecapitalism and industrialization disrupted, substituting an atomistic and mechanical view of society:

Our philosophical and economic individualism has affected our religious thought so deeply that we hardly comprehend the prophetic view of an organic national life and of national sin and salvation. We usually conceive of the community as a loose sand-heap of individuals, and this difference in the fundamental view distorts the utterances of the prophets as soon as we hear them. [6]

This observation is important in understanding the attraction of socialistic ideas in Rauschenbusch’s day and our own. Rauschenbusch does not want to denigrate the emphasis on the individual in modern society, but he sees the danger in overemphasizing the individual at the detriment to community. [7]

The past 400 years have seen a change in the fundamental idea of what a society is and should be from an organic ideal to a mechanical and individualistic ideal. The politics of our day is deeply impacted by this fundamental division. A truly post-modern political philosophy will not necessarily take sides on this division, so much as it may seek to transcend it by unifying an organic and individual approach, preserving the best of both. I hope to deal with this in a future blog. For today, it is important to note that Rauschenbusch yearns for a more cohesive social fabric in which the division of labor and capital, with labor impoverished is superseded by a more just form of economic organization.

Prophetic Preference for the Poor

Anticipating recent liberation theology, Rauschenbusch sees in the prophetic tradition another emphasis that should motivate people of faith to social change: The constant preference of the prophets in defending the poor and their needs against economic and political oppression. In the Old Testament the prophets condemned the tendency for land, which was the primary wealth of their day, to be centralized in an aristocracy who joined together plots of land acquired at the expense of the poor, which resulted in economic inequality and human suffering. [8] Thus, a dominant concern of the prophets was the protection of the weak and restoration of some kind of economic equality.

Rauschenbusch sees the analogy of the Old Testament situation with the economic inequality of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, just as we might well see the value of his critique as we look at the vast economic and social inequality created by the “Second Industrial Revolution” that the growth of an information-based society and economy has produced. This does not necessarily argue against private property, for the goal of the ancients was to recover a society in which people did own their homes and the fundamental property needed for some kind of economic security. It will not be “every man owning his own fig tree” in a post-industrial society, but some kind of human security based upon what I will call “personal ownership of the fundamental requirements of life” may substitute as an ideal in our post-industrial society. [9] Far from limiting the ownership of labor of the elements of capital, we should encourage its extension by every reasonable means.

Eschatology and the Perfect Society

There is an eschatological aspect to Rauschenbusch’s thought that begins with the Old Testament. I will leave to the future a full discussion of eschatology as it impacts Christianity and the Social Crisis. This week it will be enough to mention that the prophetic impulse in the Old Testament is connected to the ideal of a perfected society. [10]Rauschenbusch recognizes that the Hebrew prophetic tradition did not primarily focus on an unrealizable equality or perfection of society, but upon those improvements which lay “within a realizable distance” of current social conditions. [11] For the prophets, a return to the national freedom of the Davidic kingdom under the rule of a just and faithful ruler was within reason and ought to be attempted in order to forestall a judgement falling on the people. In their view, national repentance and a restoration of a just society was realizable.

In this insight, any Christian political theology can agree. Christians may disagree as to what improvements increase societal perfection or are within the reasonable reach of society. Christians cannot agree that no attempt ought to be made to move society to a greater level of justice. It is the duty of the church to cooperate with those elements of society and thought that would maintain and increase the level of justice in our society.


I have refrained for the most part from critiquing Rauschenbusch in this blog. This will not be possible throughout what I think will be a several-week look at his thought. This week, I would point out that his focus on the prophets in the Old Testament leave out the wisdom tradition of the Old Testament, which contains powerful political implications and foreshortens his analysis of the Torah upon which Hebrew society was built. Without the law and without the wisdom tradition, it is not possible to understand the prophets. The prophets were calling Israel back to the insights of both the Torah and the Writings.

The prophetic aspect of Christian faith is an important element in its impact on individuals and society, even at the cost of critiquing current direction of our society. In a passage that could easily be directed at our own day and time, Rauschenbusch concludes his discussion of the prophetic background of a Christian response to the suffering and corruption of his own day with these words:

[S]uppose that our country was bleeding through disastrous foreign wars and invasions, shaken by internal anarchy, terrified and angry at blows too powerful for us to avert, and in that condition a preacher should “weaken public confidence” still further by such a message? The vivid Oriental imagery of the prophets must not give us the impression that the injustice and corruption of that day were unique. It is impossible to make accurate comparisons of human misery, but it may well be that the conditions against which moral sensibility of the prophets revolted could be equaled in any modern industrial culture. [12]

Here we end the beginning of our look at Christianity and the Social Crisis. Next week we will look at the figure of Jesus and his extension of the tradition.

If we were to substitute “post-industrial” for “industrial” the critique Rauschenbusch makes might also be applicable to the injustice of our own society, an injustice that has reached the end of the earth and created an elite in every nation whose interests are not those of the common person.

Copyright 2022, G. Christopher Scruggs, All Rights Reserved

[1] C. S. Lewis, “Learning in War Time” in The Weight of Glory (Grand Rapids, MI: Eeardman’s Publishing, 1949), 44.

[2] Walter Rauschenbusch, Christianity and the Social Crisis (Louisville, KY: Westminster/John Knox Press,1991). hereinafter “CSC.”

[3] CSC, at 3. As will become clearer in the next installment, I believe that Rauschenbusch overstated his case as regards the intentions of Jesus. Nevertheless, there is an inevitable political aspect of Jesus’ thought that Rauschenbusch correctly emphasizes.

[4] Id, at 5.

[5] Id, at 8.

[6] Id at 10.

[7] Id, at 29.

[8] Id, at 11.

[9] I have hinted at the exact way in which I think this might be accomplished. I disagree with the growing notion that we should create a society of renters on a world scale in which private ownership (and inevitably freedom) are abolished. Instead I think that worker and consumer ownership of elements of all businesses, as well as individual ownership of homes and essentials is the better course for maintenance of a free society.

[10] Id, at 33.

[11] Id, at 34.

[12] Id, at 38.

Friedrich Nietzsche: Third Horseman of the Apocalypse

This week we come to the philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche. I’ve been titled this blog, “Friedrich Nietzsche: Third Horsemen of the Apocalypse” because Nietzsche is often referred to with Darwin, Marx, and Freud, as one of four figures most responsible for destroying the optimistic rationalism of the Enlightenment. The results left the intelligentsia with a materialist, power-oriented view of human nature and human society, a dark view of human nature ultimately hostile to the democratic ideals that gave birth to the United States of America and the free nations of the world.

For those disinclined to see God at work in evolution, evolutionarily theory opened up a way to see the human being as not created by God, not made in the image of God, not gifted with the rationality of God, but as an animal struggling for survival. Marx extended the vision of human beings and human society as simply the result of materialistic forces into the area of politics, with dialectical materialism as the force behind the inevitable emergence of the proletariat and a communist form of economic and social organization. Freud, who we will look at in a later blog, undermined the notion that human beings are rational, seeing human intellect as a front for deeper, and often dark, psychological forces.


Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900) is a 19th century figure, whose influence has been felt powerfully in the 20th and 21st centuries. Nietzsche was born into a Christian household. His father was a Lutheran minister. Unfortunately, his father died when he was only five years old, leaving him to be raised by the women in the family. Throughout his life, he was attracted to strong male figures, such as Wagner, who could provide for him the father that he was deprived of in early life. This event left him a perennial loner who often felt as if he did not belong.

There is no question but what Nietzsche was brilliant. There’s also no question but what he was increasingly frail, nervous, overly-sensitive, and ultimately mentally unbalanced. He had a sensitivity that drove him, as it drives many today, to see the faults and failures of others and of society, without the ability to sympathize with human frailty and limitations, even gross misbehavior.  Personally, he was kind in the extreme, and neighbors in Italy, where he sometimes lived, called him “the Little Saint.”

In his childhood and early teenage years, he was exceedingly religious, and his mother hoped that he would follow his father into the ministry. Around the age of eighteen, however, he lost his Christian faith. This is an important fact, because his rigidly logical and brilliant mind forced him to face the consequences of his loss of faith. Unlike others, he did not assume or quietly accept those portions of Christian faith and morality, he rejected Christian faith and morals wholesale..

Philosophers of the Enlightenment often rejected Christian faith in the sense of the existence of miracles, the authority of Scripture, the divinity of Christ, and other doctrines, but continued to believe in God, the God of Deism, in an orderly rational universe that had produced an orderly rational human being, and in a rational human society, governed by orderly moral laws that might be discovered by reason. This vision leads directly to the notion that human beings can be trusted to govern themselves and will in the end discover the most appropriate social organization and laws for a society. With Nietzsche, this vision reaches a philosophical endpoint.

The extent of his alienation from the faith of his childhood is vividly demonstrated by his friendship with Wagner. Early in his life, while a student Leipzig, nature met Richard Wagner and became a close acquaintance. Wagner was the father figure for whom Nietzsche longed. Their friendship lasted into the mid-1870s, but ended when Wagner returned to Christian faith and began to express admiration for Christian tradition and virtues in his work. Nietzsche immediately broke off at the friendship from which it never recovered. Nietzsche’s departure from his Christian faith was irrevocable, into the end of his days he rejected the Christian tradition. He expressly told his sister that he did not want to be buried in a Christian funeral.

Nietzsche as a Political Thinker

Nietzsche has been an important influence on 20th century, and early 21st-century philosophy. The entire movement toward what we today called “deconstructionism,” or “post-modernism,” is a fruit of Nietzsche’s skepticism toward faith, morals, and traditional notions of social order. Because of the association of Nietzsche’s thought with the thought of the Nazis in Germany prior to and during World War II, many philosophers have tried to defend Nietzsche from any association with political philosophy, and particularly with any kind of association with a political philosophy that might be associated with Nazism.

These philosophers have often taken the position that Nietzsche was not a political philosopher and should not be understood as giving political advice. Philosophically, they make a good case in favor of their view. However, this dispute among philosophers does not really matter in the attempt to outline Nietzsche’s influence in political thinking. Whatever Nietzsche’s intentions, the fact is he’s been influential in the thinking and behavior of politicians. This particular blog focuses on those aspects of Nietzsche’s thought that undermine confidence in democracy and which have influenced the course of 20th century and now 21st Century politics.

God is Dead

Interestingly enough, I think the place to begin is with Nietzsche’s famous observation, “God is dead”. [1] One might say that all of Nietzsche’s philosophy is a working out of his loss of religious faith. In the ancient world, societies often felt that their civilizations were founded by the gods, and their system of government and/or royalty were descendants of the god’s. The imperial system of Japan as it existed at the end of the Second World War was probably the last of these societies. In western Europe, and especially in England in the United States, even after the Enlightenment, natural law theory, and the many connections between natural law theory and religious faith, continued to influence the legal order of society. It might be the Christian God, the Deist God of the Enlightenment; or in the Muslim world today, it might even be Allah; but in any case, somehow the social order  and law was a reflection of a divine order embedded in the universe.

Nietzsche clearly understood that the phrase “God is dead” meant that the social order of Europe had no stable foundation. In other words, if the Christian God is dead, then European society, culture, morals, law, even such mundane matters as the vast majority of its holiday’s had no foundation. Like many people today, Nietzsche was appalled by the decadence of European Christianity and its many compromises with power, economic and political.

Nietzsche believed that something like the pagan society of the ancient world, which he admired from his philological studies, was a possible replacement for the Christian basis of Western society. Much of Nietzsche’s thought involves the creation of a kind of “alternative mythology” upon which such a revitalized European society might be based. He did not believe that such a society would be easily achieved, and felt that the end of the Christian era would be, as it has been, filled with social decay, violence terror, and revolution. It is also clear that he did not believe it was possible to return to the social structures of the ancient world.

The Hermeneutic of Suspicion

Nietzsche also saw that the loss of religious faith had another consequence: the death of God meant the death of the ideal of truth as absolute certainty and the religious quest for absolute truth. The death of God resulted in Nietzsche’s belief that all truth claims were illusions, falsehoods that needed to be unmasked. He began his analysis with religion but extended it to science and other forms of truth seeking. For Nietzsche, not only the achievements of religion, but of science, literature, culture, metaphysics, morals and morality, all of previous philosophy were illusory. In particular, Kant and Hegel, the giants of German philosophy were simply procrastinators,” dupes of a dying ideal,” who wove vast systems of words that hid the death of God, the death of metaphysics, the death traditional morals, and the death of traditional society based upon the illusion of absolute reason. There is no final truth, “and the sincere person realizes he always lies.” In the end, Nietzsche is an absolute nihilist.

Materialism, Evolution and the Will to Power

Nietzsche is a radical materialist. His concept of the “Will to Power” is a result of his commitment to a fully materialistic version of evolutionary thought that is central to his thought. When Nietzsche gave up religious faith, he gave up any notion of intellectual or spiritual forces as guiding human history. In his theory, which denies wisdom and truth as stable categories (because they are illusory), human will becomes primary. Nietzsche believed that the implications of Darwinism, combined with Newtonian mechanism, was not the Deism of Newton and others, but instead what I will call “Evolutionary Materialism.” Unlike Darwin who sees the fundamental driving power of evolution as the adaptive struggle for survival, Nietzsche sees the Will to Power as the fundamental driving force of evolution, of the development of human society, and of human progress.

The Will to Power, the will to dominate, to control, and to create, is the ultimate driving force of evolutionarily history. Whereas Darwinian evolutionary theory posits that the driving force of evolution is the adaptation of individuals to external circumstances, that is to say the world as it is, for Nietzsche the driving force of evolution is the desire for power. Nietzsche sometimes describes the Will to Power in almost demonic terms, for the Will to Power is the will to appropriate, injure, destroy, conquer, overcome, eliminate weak opposition, impose one’s own will, and to form the future in accordance with one’s own desires.

Human Equality vs. the Overman

The final characteristic of Nietzsche’s thought that I want to discuss has to do with his radical individualism and denial of a common humanity, which is central to democratic societies. Nietzsche conceives of human beings as isolated foci of power, connected to others only by the will to power. [2] His concept of the “Over-Man” or “Superman” as it is sometimes translated illustrates another feature of his thought: not only are human beings fundamentally isolated units, but they are not equal by any means. There are different types of men, some lower and some higher. Nietzsche thought of himself, the isolated sufferer who has pierced through all the illusions of human society, as the supreme embodiment of the aristocracy of the mind.

The “Over-Human” is one who has transcended the illusions of morality and embraced the nihilistic core of the human soul, the Will to Power. He or she understands that the Will to Power is the ultimate and essential driving force in history. Such a person is filled with a life-force that demands that it achieve that which it wills. There’s no doubt but what Nietzsche himself saw this in philosophical, moral, and aesthetic terms. Nietzsche’s defenders are correct that to the gentle philosopher, the Over-Human was not a beast trying to gain political power at all costs. The Over-Human was a person like Nietzsche who had seen the implications of modern science and modern philosophy, with its destructive power for all traditional society, had reached the end of faith, and embraced the task of reconstructing that society, driven by a desire for success (power) in reconstructing Western Civilization. However, most people are not at philosophers or philologists in love with words or classical culture.

The notion of the Over-Human, implies power over others and, cannot help but, in the hands of political types, result in some kind of despotism, for in their hands power is everything and the power they desire is political and economic. In this sense, I do not think that Nietzsche or Nietzscheans can escape the complaint of Christians and others that their philosophy is dangerously inclined towards totalitarianism when applied to human affairs by practical persons of aspirations to power. When the loner Adolph Hitler was attracted to Nietzsche’s thought as supportive of his racial and totalitarian theories, whether Nietzsche or Nietzscheans like it or not there was an is a reasonable ground for the attraction.


In an earlier Blog entitled, “Are We at the End of a Nietzschean Age?” I concluded that Nietzsche’s program of seeing all truth claims as simple bids for power finds its current home in deconstructive social theory. Nietzsche effectively “deconstructed” the foundations of Enlightenment liberalism, reducing all truth claims, all moral claims, and all aesthetic claims to bids for power. Nietzsche’s hostility towards Christianity as a “slave religion,” reflecting the attempt the weak to gain power over the strong, what in this blog I call the Over-Human, who has the vitality to impose his or her will on others) undermines the fundamental common humanity upon which republican democracies rely. In practice, the results of Nietzschean thought has inevitably been some kind of totalitarianism, whether embodied in physical violence or deceit. [3] This Nietzschean notion of the will to power embeds in contemporary politics an innate tenancy towards physical or moral violence. [4]

Finally, Nietzsche’s thought is hostile to a concept of “servant leadership” so desperately needed in contemporary politics. I stand by this earlier evaluation of this thought and the dead end it has created in American politics. The antics of the “Super-People” who dominate the social, economic and political thought of America and the West today, with their insatiable and morally bankrupt search for power, is the end of the line of thinking that Nietzsche embodies.

We will return to Nietzsche in the future. I was a philosophy major in undergraduate school, and no one was more instrumental in my thinking the Nietzsche. In the end, I became a Christian and abandoned this position. Against the Will to Power, I would substitute the notion of a society built on the slow progressive embodiment of wisdom and love in human history and the traditions of human society. Nevertheless, as pointed out over and over again in this blog, at any given point in history we cannot see everything. Nietzsche saw the implications of materialism and Darwinian evolution and applied his perception to philosophy, morality, culture, and aesthetics. In this way he participated in the great flow of history. A future political philosophy cannot ignore his achievements.

Copyright 2022, G. Christopher Scruggs, All Rights Reserved

[1] Unlike most of the blogs in this series, I am not able to extensively footnote this blog. My library is filled with volumes by and about Nietzsche. I have relied upon George A. Morgan, What Nietzsche Means (New York, NY: Harper & Row1941) which is a sympathetic look at his thought and Friedrich Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil ed. Walter Kaufmann (New York, NY: Random House, 1966) and Twilight of the Idols and Anti-Christ tr. R. J. Hollingdale (New York, NY: Penguin Books, 1968). Professor Morgan would not agree with my conclusions. I have read extensively on Nietzsche and was deeply impacted by this thought as an undergraduate.

[2] As in so many areas, Nietzsche takes to an extreme the materialistic and radically individualistic implications of Enlightenment thought. In my view, when he does so, he simply illustrates the inadequacy of such a view. The world and human beings are not characterized by radical disconnectedness but by radical universal connectedness.

[3] See, John Milbank, Theology and Social Theory 2nd ed. London, UK: Blackwell, 2006). Milbank would not agree with all my conclusions, nor I with his. Milbank believes, as do I, that Nietzschean nihilism leads to some form of totalitarianism not much different than national socialism. Unfortunately, we see elements of this kind of government in American and Western European society. In my view, contemporary Communist China is a national socialist state masquerading as a communist state. Modern Russia under Putin is clearly a kind of national socialist state, in which very wealthy oligarchs and the state control every element of human life.

[4] Id, at xiii, and chapter 10, “Ontological Violence or the Postmodern Problematic” pp. 278-326

Marx 2: The Communist Manifesto

Social Conflict as the Engine of History

The first words of the Communist Manifesto set out the basic insight of Marxist theory of history. “The history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles.” [1] According to Marx, the rise and fall of the empires of the ancient world, the kingdom of Alexander the great, the rise of Rome, Charlemagne and the rise of medieval Europe, the rise and fall of the dynasties of Russia and ancient China, according to Marx all of these can be reduced to a single formula: Class struggle.

It’s important, therefore, to stop right at the beginning, to identify the importance of this single statement for our politics today. Since Marx, on the left and on the right, but particularly on the left, there’s been a tendency to seek power through class struggle. When I was in college, I read an influential history of the American Revolution written by the historian, Charles A. Beard, who was influenced by Marxist historical analysis. Beard reduced the American Revolution to a struggle of the bourgeoisie against the Crown and Colonial Powers of 18th Century England. [2] For Marx, Baird, and their modern followers, including many prominent political figures, social progress results from class conflict. Beard has been much criticized for his view that, for example, the American Civil War and the elimination of Slavery was not fought on moral grounds but as a result of the inevitable conflict between Northern bourgeoise and Southern agrarian culture. This despite the abundant evidence that vast numbers of northern soldiers and Lincoln were highly motivated by a moral objection to slavery.

For Marx, writing in the midst of the Industrial Revolution in 19th Century Europe, the struggle was between the working class and the bourgeoisie. I find his description of that struggle illuminating and important. I do not find quite so convincing his historical analysis from the ancient medieval world. It seems to me that economic forces cannot explain, for example, the emergence of the empire of Alexander the Great and the death of the Persian and Egyptian empires by conquest, which seems to be based upon the human will to conquest and not upon economic factors at all. The emergence of the Kingdom of Charles the Great similarly seems to me to result from the human desire for order in the midst of the chaos resulting from teh fall of Rome, not solely from economic factors.

When the communist revolution emerged in China, that Marx’s industrial analysis was inapplicable. In the period after World War II, China was largely a preindustrial society, a fact which Mao recognized. Therefore, Mao and his followers based their struggle on the struggle between rural peasantry and those in power in the cities. In the third world generally, the Chinese version of class conflict has been more important that Marx’s original formulation. Before this series is over, we will look at so-called, “Liberation Theology,” which is much influenced by Mars and been powerful in Latin America and other Third World areas which remain primarily rural. [3]

I hope by the time this blog is finished readers will understand that the insight of Marx into the importance of economics and class struggle in history is significant. However, it can be overstated. While there is no question but what economic and class considerations motivate people, and that motivation creates social conflict, social conflict is not at the basis of all social progress. In fact, a close look at world history indicates that excessive conflict caused societies to deteriorate into brutality not reach a higher level. It doesn’t take a lot to see in Stalin and others not progress but deterioration. Lenin, Stalin, Mao, Pot Pol and their followers have been the source of endless brutality and genocide. None of this is progress. After seventy years of Communism, Russia did not look like a classless utopia, but like one huge, poverty-stricken third world country which happened to have a large army and nuclear capacity.

From a Christian point of view, because we are all fallen in selfish people, conflict is an inevitable part of human history and human society. Because we are all innately self-centered and potentially greedy, economic conflict is also inevitable. However, beneath our propensity for self-seeking economic behavior also lies the human capacity for goodness, the search for truth, order, meaning, purpose, and love both personal and social. A truly post-modern theory of history and politics will not involve a “reductionistic materialism,” but rather recognize the importance of human values and wisdom in social order. It will not embrace seeking a secular end to history, but rather emphasize the never-ending role of human beings in creating life-affirming social orders within a history that has no certain or sure movement towards a “better world.” History teaches that if human beings make unwise decisions within history, the future is not better, but worse.

Spread of Capitalism

Having set out some limitations to Marx’s analysis, it’s important to give credit where credit is due. If one looks at the emergence of capitalism and the emergence of free markets in Britain in Europe and growth of an industrial civilization out of the primarily agrarian civilization, one is struck by the rapid change of society and the advance of Western culture and Western economic organization throughout the world. As Marx observed in the Communist Manifesto, modern industry has established a world market, and traditional modes of social and economic organization have been pushed aside in every society in which private capital and free markets, have gained a foothold. The discovery of America and the founding of the United States as the first truly “Post Enlightenment Nation” fueled the spread of capitalism as American trade began to reach the ends of the earth and American power began to grow. [4]

The rapid growth of the post-Enlightenment industrial economy, was not without social cost. The feudal societies of Europe degenerated, and with that degeneration came an end to the highly structured, patriarchal socio-economic organization common in the Middle Ages. In addition, traditional crafts, represented by the guilds of medieval Europe were dissolved as the bourgeoisie and private capital gained began to dominate Western culture. Large numbers of people fell into urban poverty, which is harsher and different than rural poverty. [5] Finally, the professions, such as law, the ministry, medicine, government service, and the like began to change as the economic power of a new class of economic power began to emerge and hold sway over society. [6] By the time of the First World War, the class system of the Middle Ages, which only a century and a half earlier looked unassailable, was at the end of its life.

In our day, we have seen a form of capitalism extend itself into previously socialist economies, and Latin America, into Africa, the Middle East, and the most important way in the Far East, which have been a center of the growth of capitalist society since the end of World War II. Almost no one could have foreseen the growth of Japan, China, Singapore, South Korea, Vietnam, and other burgeoning neo-capitalist economies in the east on the last day of the Second World War. And yet a change favoring private capital and some form of “freer markets” has prevailed and enhanced human life where it has taken root.

The changes in society caused by the emergence of capitalist society are vast. Entire populations left rural areas for cities where more opportunity was to be found. In addition, capitalism went beyond rationalizing existing means of production and economic activity. As Marx observed, the bourgeoisie not only rationalized existing economic order but created a situation where there was (and is) constantly revolutionizing “the instruments of production, and thereby the relations of producers and with them the whole relations of society.” [7] This is the source of the phrase “creative destruction” so often used (and misused) among free market aficionados.

It does not take a lot of imagination to see the continuing impact of capitalism in the recent development of computers and the emerging information age. The rationalization and extension of economic activity under the control of private capital continues, and bourgeoisie market capitalism continues to change and upset existing forms of life with which people are accustomed. As it does this, capitalism continues to create new centers of economic power, as we see in the great fortunes that have been made in the information technology industries and the media in our own day. During such periods (and we are currently in one) it is easy for some people to lose confidence in the underlying value of free markets. It is also in times like these that problems with unregulated markets begin to be seen more clearly than at times with the average person feels life is getting better and they and their families are benefiting from free markets.

Socialism as an Alternative

Marx spends a good bit of the Communist Manifesto critiquing liberal forms of social democracy. [8] It should surprise no one that the revolutionary proposals made by Communists during the 19th and early 20th century did not appeal to everyone and many well-meeting people attempted to develop alternatives. The most common alternative was a form of social democracy in which private capital is supplemented by public ownership of certain industries and large charitable contributions by wealthy individuals, families, corporations and others. Marx believes that this is a half waist step. In our own day, there are many American thinkers who believe that this approach is the one America should take.

There are a couple of observations to be made that impact both communist and social democratic thinking. By the end of the 20th century, communism had failed in Russia and China, the two largest export social experiments in this form of economic organization. In addition, and perhaps less well-known, social democracy had largely failed in Western Europe. Publicly owned companies, whether in communist or social democratic countries, rapidly became non-competitive. Their capital structures became outdated. In the end, steel mills, railroads, automobile plants, airlines, and a variety of industries had to be at least partially privatized in order to be updated to meet the demands of a contemporary market. There is little or no reason to believe that any future form of this kind of capital organization will work any better.

As to Communism, shortly after the fall of the Soviet Regime in Russia, I had the opportunity to travel there for a few weeks. The amount of poverty, the distortion of economic activity, the poor quality of housing and almost any manufactured good, all visibly testified to the failure communist social organization. What had transpired in Russia was the emergence of a huge, ineffective and corrupt bureaucracy which was woefully incompetent in almost every area of life. All of Russian society had suffered from a corruption from which it has yet to emerge.

In Great Britain, the Labor Party eventually began to sell publicly owned businesses into private hands in order to solve persistent capital shortages and management problems. This turned out to be a less than adequate alternative, as what we in the United States called “crony capitalism” developed. The development of a kind of crony capitalism even more apparent in formally communist regimes, where the military and intelligence bureaucracties have ended up controlling large amounts of the economy.

A Faulty Materialistic Eschatology

When I was growing up, it was common to see communism as a kind of secular religion. Scholars on the left and on the right have observed that the Marxist notion that the end of history will come with the creation of a classless society in which everything is owned in common involves a kind of materialistic eschatology. For the Marxist, the end of history will not come by the rule of an all knowing, all kind, all loving, and all wise God, but in the rule of them seemingly all knowing, all kind all loving and all wise proletariat and the operation of blind economic forces.

We now have enough experience in the actual operation of “all- knowing, all-kind, all-loving and all-wise bureaucracies to know that this is not possible. In the two great experiments in communism, the end result was a kind of oligarchy in which the military, intelligence services, and insiders transferred to private ownership the common goods of the society and our rule as an oligarchy. There was no idyllic worker state. There’s no reason to believe that there would be any other result if humans were to experiment further along this line. Marx’s faith in a cataclysm followed by the emergence of a worker’s paradise was an impossible vision.

In a materialistic age, it is to be expected that people might look forward to any materialistic end of history in which all of their hopes and dreams for prosperity, equality and justice might be met. One basic intention of these blogs is to disabuse people from engaging in such fantasy. History will not end within human history. Inside human history, we can make the world a better place though small, wise, loving decision-making as we attempt to solve problems we can solve and ameliorate suffering we can ameliorate. We cannot perfect the world by any action, however dramatic. In fact, we will almost certainly cause immense and terrible suffering if we try.


As insightful as Marxist critique of capitalism is, it’s possible that the fault in capitalism and the fault in communism both flow from their inherent reduction of all human behavior to material, self-centered economic decision-making. In fact, it is my guess that this is precisely true. This does not mean that we are stuck with only two alternatives, laissez faire capitalism or some form of public ownership. There are other alternatives, such as increasing consumer and worker ownership in business enterprises. This kind of approach could involve more or less dramatic changes in the ownership of capital, from encouraging employee ownership programs to giving incentives for businesses to be converted to worker and consumer owned COOP’s. In due course, we will examine the potential for a new, personalist and communal approach to the problems Marx identified.

As I reread this blog, I am aware that it is not as neutral as I hoped it would be. I want to end with a note of appreciation. Marx’s analysis of the problems of the industrial economy of his day is important. At least some degree, he pushed human knowledge forward in an important way. That is all we can expect from any human being. Perhaps it would have been better if he had avoided some of his more radical conclusions, but in his day and time it might not have been possible to do so. It is a sad fact of human history that not all of the mistakes and suffering we inflict on ourselves or others are avoidable, which is one good reason why humans should work so hard to avoid every mistake possible and mitigate the suffering of every decision we make.

[1] Karl Marx, Manifesto of the Communist Party  in Britania Great Books, Vol. 50 Ed, Mortimer J. Adler (New York, NY: Encyclopedia Britannica, Inc., 1952), 419. Citations to the Communist Manifesto will be from the same source, and hereafter each will be referred to as Communist Manifesto.

[2] Charles A. Baird, An Economic Interpretation of the Constitution of The United States (New York, McMillan and Company, 1913, 1922).

[3] See, Gustavo Guitierrez Mereno, OP, A Theology of Liberation History, Politics, and Salvation (New York, NY: Orbis Books, 1971).

[4] Communist Manifesto at 420.

[5] My mother often observed that growing up on a farm in rural Illinois during the great depression they were very poor. However they didn’t know they were poor because they had plenty of food to eat from the fields, clothes to wear, and a school to attend. It didn’t seem to the children that anything was terribly wrong despite the worries of her parents!

[6] Communist Manifesto, at 420.

[7] Id, at 421.

[8] Id, at 432 ff under the caption, “Conservative or Bourgeoisie Captialism”.

Marx 1: Background and Assumptions

As I began this week, I realized it is impossible to give a sympathetic review of the work of Karl Marx without first discussing Adam Smith and the industrial revolution. Modern economic theory began with the work of Adam Smith. Though today best remembered for his seminal work, “Wealth of Nations”, in his own day Smith was primarily known as a moral philosopher. [1] Skipping Wealth of Nations in this series was a mistake, and the Adam Smith needs to be covered. I will not stop to do so at this point in time but will cover Smith as a political thinker before this series is over.

Adam Smith occupies a position intellectually as a part of the Enlightenment. Subsequent to the work of Smith and Wealth of Nations, what we would call classical free market economic theory developed. Particularly important for understanding Marx is the work of David Ricardo, who expanded the insights of Smith in the area of the theory of wages, profit and rents, to which Marx responds in his work, Das Capital. [2]

Without going into detail, the growth of classical free market economic theory paralleled the growth of industrialization in Europe. This, in turn, resulted in Marxist analysis in the development of two different groups of people:

  1. What is sometimes called the “bourgeoisie,” which were the owners of capital and what we today refer to as the “middle class”; and
  2. What Marx called the “proletariat,” or the working class and lower classes, including the poor.

By the mid-19th century, wealth, property ownership, and power in Europe had shifted from wealthy, feudal landowners, to a new class of individuals who had made their money in industry and commerce. This new power-base, made up of industrial entrepreneurs and the business class, had great wealth and disproportionate political and economic power. This shift in power partially accounts for the development a liberal democracy and also the development of what is sometimes called “laissez-faire capitalism.” The theory of laissez-faire capitalism is and was that markets should be free to operate without interference. Although today there are few people who subscribe to an unregulated form of capitalism, in the 19 century it was popular.

The development of an industrial economic system created tremendous economic dislocation as families left traditional communities and society, and moved to cities and areas of industrial concentration. Often, these people lived in substandard conditions. In addition, because of the power was held in the hands of the capital owners, the working class had little control over their destiny. It is to be remembered that modern developments, such as labor unions, were a late 19th-century development and not part of the early industrial revolution. The same thing is true of governmental restrictions on business. The figure of Karl Marx and his thought cannot be understood without this background, for Marx reacted against the dislocation, poverty and suffering of the working class of his day to which he was extraordinarily sensitive.

We live in a somewhat similar time, in that the development of an “Information Society” as opposed to an “Industrial Society” has resulted in a new class of elite, the creators and owners of vast information businesses in the area of technology, electronic media, what is sometimes called the “tech industry,” and the like. This new class of elites has enormous economic and political power and exerts influence that has lessened the power of traditional industrial and commercial concerns and other entities, such as labor unions, that emerged as counter-balances to the power of the industrial and commercial businesses. During such times, it is easy for some people to lose confidence in institutions and in the fundamentals of their society. Even freedom can fall victim to the stress of the emergence of a new era. More sympathetically, there is always a lag as a free society develops protections for the common people as a new era emerges.

Brief Biography

Karl Heinrich Marx (1818-1883) is, without question, the most important political philosopher of the 19th and 20thcenturies. His works have been influential in philosophy, history, politics, government, and economics—in every aspect of modern society. Even in the West, where capitalism sustained its leadership as an economic theory, Marx is exceedingly important, if for no other reason than his status as the primary intellectual source of Soviet and Chinese Communism and the attraction of his thought to intellectual and political elites.

Marx studied law and philosophy in Germany where he was born of Jewish/Christian parents. In his youth, he appears to have been religious but under the influence of his teachers and friends became an atheist. Throughout his life, Marx aligned himself with political radicals, including founded the Communist Party. His was not an easy personality, and he often fell out with his allies in political and economic matters.

Despite family objections, he married Jenney von Westphalen who was of a middle-class family, to whom he remained loyal his entire life. Unfortunately, Marx was unable to maintain regular employment, working only intermittently. He was irresponsible in his spending habits, and the family suffered great poverty, resulting in the death of two of their children. He seems to have been unable to function effectively in ordinary life. It is a paradox that the champion of the working class was himself not a worker.

There’s no question but what Marx’s friendship with Frederick Engles, who both financially supported and acted as an advisor to him, was of great importance to Marx as a thinker and activist. His most popular works are the Communist Manifesto and Das Capital (1867-1883). The focus of these blogs will be on the Communist Manifesto, but it is not possible to understand or appreciate Marx without reference to his other works.

Basic Philosophy

Materialism. Much has been made of the influence of Hegel upon the thought and work of Marx. During Marx’s education in Germany, the dominating figure was George Frederick Hegel, who was an idealist. His form of idealism relied upon a dialectic of the Spirit that he believed operated within human history. The dialectic moved from a thesis, to an anti-thesis, to a resolution. At the risk of oversimplification, Marx takes the fundamental inside of Hegel and gives it a materialistic interpretation. Human history is not the development of the spirit but a development of material forces seen in the development of economic regimes. Capitalism, and the economics of Smith and Ricardo are not, in Marx’s view, the final form of economic organization but only a phase in the historical development of humankind. [3]

Marx’s materialism was not, however, an inhuman materialism. Instead, he imbedded into his philosophy an important role for human consciousness. As one writer put it:

Marx was a close student of ancient and modern materialism. His dissertation concerned itself with the difference between the Epicurean and the Democritean philosophies of nature. He was at home, as his short excursion in Die Heilige Familie into the history of materialism shows, with modern materialisms. He could trace down to its finest nuances the influence of Cartesian rationalism and Locke’s empiricism upon French medical theory out of which the materialistic sensationalism of the Encyclopaedists developed. He followed with keen interest the progress of the biological sciences in the 18th century. In all of these philosophies he finds one fundamental defect, an inability to explain the facts of perception and knowledge – in short, of meaningful consciousness. [4]

It’s important to give Marx the most positive interpretation possible but at the same time to understand the limitations of his position. It is a positive aspect of Marx’s analysis that it embraces the role of the human knower. Hegel over-emphasized the impact of the spirit and ideas on the course of human history. Marx reacted against this view, seeing the importance of material forces at work in history, politics, and particularly in the area of what we would call political economy.

As mentioned above, the Middle Ages ended with the development of a middle class, and power shifted from the landed gentry who were descendants of the original nobility in Europe to the bourgeoisie made up of capitalists, professionals, and others in a position to acquire wealth and power in such an economy. In some respects, the emergence of democracy was heavily influenced by the emergence of this middle class and its desire to be free of the historic power of the nobility and landed gentry. The powerful economic forces unleashed by the development of science and technology caused a massive change in human economic organization and in the structure of human life and consciousness. This aspect of Marx’s work is important.

On the other hand, from up at purely historical perspective, it’s obvious that not all human progress has been economically motivated. For example, it’s difficult to see the work of Handel and many others as solely the result of historical material economic forces. Handel is a case in point: he seems to have been primarily motivated by religious concerns. A more balanced view is that, while economic forces are important and particularly important in a materialistic era, they are not the only forces at work in human history.

At this point, it may help a reader to introduce two terms: “Idealistic Inflation” and “Materialistic Collapse.” In certain thinkers, Berkeley and Hegel being two, there is a tendency to inflate the importance of the ideal and the spirit in human affairs. In others, like Marx and modern materialistic capitalist thinkers, there is a tendency to reduce everything to the material and material forces. Wisdom is achieved by keeping the ideal and material influence in human affairs in an appropriate balance. [5]

More fundamentally, as this blog never ceases to point out, in the way of thinking characteristic of Newton and the Modern World, and which the work of Marx embodies, it is common to see the universe is made up solely of material particles and forces in the form of energy acting upon those material particles. Marxist theory is an outgrowth of that view of the world. However, we now know that this view of the world is fundamentally limited. At the deepest level, materialism breaks down and what appears to be the case is that the fundamental reality is made up of something like information, potentiality, and the emergence of order from non-material events at a subatomic level. [6]

In this view of reality, the “material world” is an outgrowth of a world that is not material. In addition, the material world is made up of what might be called “layers of reality.” Chemistry is an outgrowth of physics but cannot be reduced to physics. Biology is an outgrowth of chemistry but cannot be reduced to chemistry. Human society emerges from biology but cannot be fully reduced to biological principles. At the level of human society, there emerges law, politics, art, literature, morality, and all the other aspects of human society and culture. These emergent realities cannot be fully reduced to their constituent physical participants or matter or forces. As a result, one difficulty with both Marxist economics and laissez-faire economics is the tendency to ignore the nonmaterial aspects of reality in their analysis of politics and other phenomenon.


An interesting paradox in Marx is that, while he critiques Smith and Ricardo, as well as all of “bourgeoisie culture” as historically relative phenomenon, he remains captured by the tendency of modern thinkers to in fact seek an end to history, which Marx finds in the dictatorship of the proletariat. As I have pointed out, the work of Charles Peirce and others casts grave doubt about the viability of such an endeavor, for all of history is relative and progressive and will remain so until the end of time. Every advance brings new problems, and every solution to the fundamental dilemma’s of human life proves to be temporary. This is an inherent feature of human existence. The search for an end of history is dilusional.

Class Conflict

In the Newtonian world view characteristic of the 19th Century and Marxist thought, all that exists is matter and forces acting upon that matter. Marx reduces the forces at work in political history to economic forces, and most importantly to an inevitable conflict of classes characteristic of human history. In the ancient world, it was a conflict between creditors and debtors. In the Middle Ages, it was the struggle between the feudal over-lords and serfs. In the modern world it was the struggle between the capitalists and bourgeoisie. It is class conflict that is the “force” that powers human history and human society towards the end of a classless society. [7]

While it is important to give Marx credit for the insight that human history involves social conflict, Marx ignores and even dismisses the communal aspects of human history, which have been the subject of other essays in this blog. He regards the social and religious impulses of human beings as reflective of “immature development.” [8] Human beings are essentially social, and they seek social support. While there have been communities and social systems created by violence and conquest, there have also been societies created by the simple human need for order, protection, friendships, economic relationships, education, and a host of human values which are not reduceable to economic forces.


Next week, we shall look at the Communist Manifesto, which is historically Marx’s most famous contribution to political philosophy. I hope that this week’s review of Marx gives a sufficient foundation for a look that the Manifesto. Marx is often a perspicuous critic of classical economic theory, and while not always accurate, his critique is to be pondered. His notion of “Class Struggle” as a component of social development and change is valuable, though perhaps not the “end of the story.”

Copyright 2022, G. Christopher Scruggs, All Rights Reserved

[1] Adam Smith, Wealth of Nations (Chicago, IL: Henrey Regnery Company, 1953).

[2] Karl Marx, Das Capital in Britania Great Books, Vol. 50 Ed, Mortimer J. Adler (New York, NY: Encyclopedia Britannica, Inc., 1952), Citations to Communist Manifesto will be from the same source, and hereafter each will be referred to as Das Capital and Manifesto, respectively.

[3] Das Capital, at 8.

[4] Sidney Hook, Marx and Feuerbach (April 1936) (downloaded February 2, 2022).

[5] This idea was suggested to me by James E. Loder in his book The Transforming Moment (rev. ed. (Colorado Springs, CO: Helmers and Howard, 1989) wherein he develops imilar notions of “Eiconic Inflation,” “Eiconic Collapse,” and “Eiconic Reductionism”. I feel that the terms “Idealistic Inflation” and “Materialistic Collapse” are easier for lay persons to understand.

[6] See as an introduction to this facet of post-modernity, Werner Heisenberg Physics and Philosophy: The Revolution in Modern Science (New York, NY: Harper Perenial, 1962).

[7] This is not the point to discuss this phenomena, but it is a fact that Marxist societies are not classless. What does happen is that a bureaucratic class emerges as the elite. As in Russia and China, this new elite eventually takes control of all of society, including the means of production and commerce. In both situations, what has emerged is a kind of “national socialism,” in which the elite transfer control of business and commerce to themselves and their families and associates. In the West, this has taken the form of what is often called, “Crony Capitalism.” In neither case is the working and middle class benefited.

[8] Id, at 35.