Marx and Augustine Find Common Ground

Ever since Candidate Obama remarked that he’d like to “spread the wealth around,” most conservative commenters have concluded that the infiltration of Marxism into our university system has now achieved its long hoped-for effect on American society. “Obama Affinity to Marxists Dates Back to College Days,” read one FoxNews headline. Any number of blogs — not to mention certain local news anchors — asked “Is Obama a Marxist?” and then predictably shifted to Prof. William Ayers’s disheartening Marxist allegiance, terrorism, and subsequent tenure.
The assumption behind the headlines is that Marxism in the university threatens the American way of life and free discourse, and this can often be the case. But is Marxism in the classroom all about anarchist bombers and the redistribution of wealth? In truth, Marxist scholars often drive historical and cultural studies by focusing on the transmission of knowledge through human agents and the effect of social context on the creative process. These aspects of Marxism uncannily (if not at times surprisingly) resonate with our own Christian intellectual heritage — and have even been used by our current pope.
First, a negative example. When I was a spry lad in a Catholic prep school, juxtaposing Catholic moral teaching with secular art seemed to me like fair game. It was a rude awakening for me, however, when I attempted to employ such a reading one day in a literature class. To my surprise, my teacher sighed and, in her typically soft-spoken voice, pronounced, “Oh, don’t you realize by now that all those rules and books were just made up by old men?” Spry as I might have been, I was woefully unprepared to offer a retort, and the conversation ended there. This, of course, is precisely the kind of thing that now-Pope Benedict XVI warned about in the appendix to In the Beginning. For all of its claims to relish in subversion, Marx has a nasty habit of disposing certain lines of threatening inquiry.
Beginning with quotes from Marx himself on the topic of creation, Benedict writes:
“Give up your abstraction, and you’ll give up your question.” “Don’t think, don’t ask me.” It is precisely here that the logic of the Marxist system manifestly breaks down. Creation is the total contradiction of Marxism and the point at which Marxist “redemption” shows itself to be damnation, resistant to the truth (91).
Benedict’s focus in this text is on origins and how they define the nature of worldly conflict. But as problematic as Marxism might be for describing a God-made world, it is precisely on the issue of man-made conflict that Marxism becomes a valuable tool within the literature classroom.
Marx threatens theology through his claim that existence is, essentially, a fabrication of human society. Sure, there might be some kind of physical causation, whether natural or supernatural, but, ultimately, we can only understand existence through what we learn from society, particularly through language; thus, human social discourse is effectively the origin of all things, so far as humans are concerned.
He writes:
From the start the “spirit” is afflicted with the curse of being “burdened” with matter, which here makes its appearance in the form of agitated airs, sounds, in short, of language. Language is as old as consciousness, language is practical consciousness that exists also for other men, and for that reason alone it really exists for me personally as well; language, like consciousness, only arises from the need, the necessity, of intercourse with other men . . . . Consciousness is, therefore, from the very beginning a social product, and remains so as long as men exist at all.
Of particular note here is how Marx argues that consciousness arises from language and language arises from society. Humans are like the M. C. Escher etching of hands drawing themselves. We can’t be aware of anything; we can’t even think of anything without the verbal tools passed on to us by other human beings. And Marx himself is getting this thought from socially constructed ideas.
While his atheist conclusions might be scandalous, the road he takes to them has already been well-trod by Christian scholars who reach a very different destination. Indeed, Marx’s view uncannily echoes St. Augustine’s On Christian Doctrine (an insight I credit to one of my undergraduate students).
Augustine is clear that the necessity to learn a literary critical approach to the Bible emerges precisely from the fact that Christians transmit God’s word through human-constructed language:
For, as I am dealing with Christians who profess to understand the Scriptures without any directions from man (and if the fact be so, they boast of a real advantage, and one of no ordinary kind), they must surely grant that every one of us learned his own language by hearing it constantly from childhood, and that any other language we have learned, — Greek, or Hebrew, or any of the rest, — we have learned either in the same way, by hearing it spoken, or from a human teacher. Now, then, suppose we advise all our brethren not to teach their children any of these things, because on the outpouring of the Holy Spirit the apostles immediately began to speak the language of every race . . . . No, no; rather let us put away false pride and learn whatever can be learned from man; and let him who teaches another communicate what he has himself received without arrogance and without jealousy.
Entire passages of On Christian Doctrine read like Marxist new historical literary theory if you simply replace the phrase “Scripture” with “literary text” and “God” with “social energy.” Augustine even points out that understanding pagan history and art is often key to understanding Scripture. According to Augustine, the failure to preserve and transmit ancient Mesopotamian culture often leads to a failure to understand even literal interpretations of the Bible, let alone the more important figurative meanings.
This, of course, is precisely the kind of historical cultural studies that often rile more conservative literary critics who want to appreciate the text on its own and who shun interpretations that ask how a text appropriates or subverts a dominant culture. Yet Benedict himself argues for the value of this method in understanding the story of Genesis. When describing the origins of Genesis 1, Benedict writes:
This faith [Judaism] now had to find its own contours, and it had to do so precisely vis-a-vis the seemingly victorious religion of Babylon . . . . It had to find its contours vis-a-vis the great Babylonian creation account of Enuma Elish, which depicted the origin of the world in its own fashion . . . . Hence this [Hebrew] creation account may be seen as the decisive “enlightenment” of history and as a breakthrough out of the fears that had oppressed humankind (In the Beginning 12-14).
As Benedict observes, we understand Genesis more fully when we incorporate modern literary scholarship that reads the text as a subversion of the Babylonian status quo.
The Marxist and Augustinian readers frequently overlap (although they disagree on Divine inspiration). One might even say that the Marxist believes his reading follows a perverted rule of charity, yielding interpretations that ought to serve the greater good. Of course, real Marxism fails because the actual world ultimately does not operate in the way that Marx fantasizes. But this is precisely why Marx is so useful in the literary setting. Marxism first assumes that the world is manmade, and then concludes how the world will operate based on this assumption.
In a completely manmade world, all people will strive to acquire or maintain power. This works in a literary text, which does present the reader with a truly manmade world (since it is a world generated in the mind of an author influenced by his social context). Not surprisingly, then, literature often follows Marx’s predictions. While a work of literary genius might point us toward a higher good, the fact is that almost all literature is centered on conflict, and that conflict can almost always be rendered in terms of political power.
What would Hamlet be without the dispute over the Danish crown? What would the Anglo-Saxons have sung about if their warriors didn’t jostle for the best ring-gifts in the mead hall? What would our love poetry sound like if Petrarch never bowed before Laura? And how would we understand Christ the King if ancient Jewish scribes weren’t so fixated on generations of dynastic disputes, subsequent foreign occupations, and, on occasion, revolution?

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Peter Freeman is an assistant professor of Renaissance English Literature at a liberal arts college in the United States.

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