Have you noticed how often socialism has been in headlines recently? From millions of Americans who are “feeling the Bern,” to President Obama’s visit to Cuba, the much-debated topic of socialism has returned to national dialogue in a major way.
What should we as Christians think about socialism? While we don’t have the space in this post to critique every iteration of contemporary socialism, we can step back and examine its roots — with a man named Karl Marx.
Karl Marx is the thinker behind the communist revolutions of the 20th century, and in some ways he is the shaping hand behind socialist economics in the 21st century.
Marx believed that economic factors are the most important factors in any society and culture. He argued that world history is really a history of people struggling with economic reality and treating each other well or badly based on that reality. In their famous book, The Communist Manifesto, Marx and Friedrich Engels wrote, “The history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles, [contests between] freeman and slave, patrician and plebeian, lord and serf, guild-master and journeyman, in a word, oppressor and oppressed.” Marx believed that humanity had evolved in stages economically — from hunter-gatherer societies, to slave-based societies, to medieval feudalism, to modern capitalism. And in his mind, capitalism need to evolve into socialism.
Marx criticized capitalism by arguing that it undermines national identities and cultural distinctive, because it encourages people to clamor for wealth rather than honoring those traditional identities and distinctives. Most importantly, he argued that capitalism dehumanizes people by alienating them from their labor. In his view, capitalist economies value money and wealth acquisition more than they value workers. They view the worker as a business expense rather than as a human being. And, judging from the state of capitalism today, Marx’s critique has some truth to it. But his solution was extreme: He believed that workers of the world should (and would) overthrow capitalism. When that happened, he argued, workers should abolish private property and eventually abolish the state itself.
It is important to note that socialism is a broad category and Marxism is just one version of it. To make things even more complex, Marx viewed socialism as only a temporary stage on the way to an even better (in his view) economic system: communism. Marx envisioned a day when his socialism (with state ownership of property) would be replaced by communism (in which the state would no longer exist). Marx’s wishes were never fulfilled. In fact, quite the opposite happened: Marxist socialism has always created an even bigger and more intrusive government than existed before.
The Problem with Marxist Socialism
One criticism of Marxist socialism is that it wants to abolish private property. But the ownership of private property is closely tied to freedom and liberty, which are essential to God’s design for human culture. When the government takes public ownership of all property, it reduces our ability to interact freely with each other in every cultural arena.
Another criticism of socialism is based on the work of an economist named Ludwig von Mises, who argued that economic activity isn’t sustainable without pricing set by the free market. Take, for example, the Soviet version of Marxist socialism. In its centrally planned economy, the prices were not determined naturally by supply and demand (as they are in capitalism), but instead were determined artificially by the government. Officials in Moscow set prices on goods and services all around the country, from eggs to tractors to heart surgeries.
The problem with this approach is that it severely reduces the incentives people have to do their work with creativity and excellence, because there is no financial reward for it. If heart surgeons get paid the same as street sweepers, then the men and women who have the potential to make breakthrough discoveries in heart surgery might never have the motivation to go through many years of medical school or to work the 60-70 hours per week that world-renowned heart surgeons work. When there is no incentive for progress, the culture stagnates or declines.
A final criticism, and a very serious one, is that socialist forms of government have to be more coercive than democratic capitalist forms. The more the government controls, the more power it has. The 20th-century Russian version of socialism was authoritarian, as are the ongoing systems in Cuba and China.
Did Marx diagnose some of the ills of capitalist societies? Absolutely. But his remedies are worse than the social illness he diagnosed. His remedy leads to a loss of liberty (via the abolishment of private property), an impulse toward authoritarianism, and a disincentivizing of work. Marx may have had good intentions, but Marxism proliferates problems rather than solving them.
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 Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, “The Communist Manifesto,” in Karl Marx, Selected Writings, ed. Lawrence H. Simon (Indianapolis: Hackett, 1994), 158-59.
 Marx and Engels, “Communist Manifest,” 158-86.
 For a brief summary of von Mises’ points, articulated from a Christian point of view, see Ronald Nash, Social Justice and the Christian Church (Lima, OH: Academic Renewal Press, 2002), 91-102.