Socialism is a polarizing notion globally, and especially so in the United States. So it was, to say the least, surprising when Bernie Sanders decided to run for President openly as a “Democratic socialist.” It is even more surprising to find him—even in the early days of the primary season—in a relatively close race with Hillary Clinton for the Democratic nomination. After all, many Americans view socialism as an evil that will ruin the economy and perhaps lead to an authoritarian government.
There are a number of reasons that some Americans are willing to give Sanders a shot. Perhaps the foremost reason is that he actually views himself as a “socialist capitalist,” a notion which most socialists would consider a contradiction in terms. But there are, in fact, a number of varieties of socialism. Each variety emphasizes material equality and communal property ownership, but each does so in its own way.
Most varieties of socialism are macro-level varieties that want nationwide revolutions, although there are versions that take their socialism on the local or personal levels. Some varieties preach sudden and even violent overthrow of capitalism, while others seek a gradual and peaceful approach to undermining capitalism. And some, like Sanders’, don’t wish to do away with capitalism at all. Some varieties of socialism claim to be based on social science and scientific approaches to history, while other varieties are more cultic in nature.
In the midst of this diversity, the unifying factors are always material equality and communal property ownership. Although these factors are economic, their realization is directly tied to political agendas.
In this post, we will focus on the most famous and widespread version of socialism—Marxism. Marxist socialism has exercised an enormous influence over some of the world’s superpowers and over hundreds of millions of people. Perhaps more so than the other political ideologies, Marxist socialism manifests more obviously as an all-encompassing worldview. But like every other political ideology, when given the ultimate allegiance it demands, it is exposed for the false religion that it is.
Karl Marx (1818–1883) believed that economic factors were the most determinative factors in any society. He argued that world history can be summarized by a series of economic struggles, as people came to grips with economic realities and treated each other well (or poorly) based on those realities. In his famous book, The Communist Manifesto, written with Friedrich Engels, Marx 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 needed to evolve into socialism.
Marx criticized capitalism by arguing that it undermined national identities and cultural distinctives, because it encouraged people to clamor for wealth rather than honoring those traditional identities and distinctives. Most importantly, he argued that capitalism dehumanized humans by alienating them from their labor. In his view, capitalist economies valued money and wealth acquisition more than they valued their workers. Capitalism tended to treat workers as mere business expenses rather than as human beings. With wealth as the unquestioned center of capitalism, Marx felt that people became faceless machines to be manipulated, replaced, or eliminated.
In response to the evils of capitalism, Marx believed that workers of the world should (and would) eventually overthrow capitalism. Capitalism was a doomed system, on the cusp of collapse—a collapse that Marx intended to hasten. When that happened, Marx foresaw workers abolishing private property, and eventually abolishing the state itself.
Socialism, however, was only a temporary stage for Marx on the way to an even better 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). As history reminds us, Marx’s wishes were never fulfilled. In fact, the opposite quite tragically occurred: Marxist socialism, in every instance, has created bigger and more intrusive governments than ever before. Much like liberalism, what began as an attempt to minimize state power led inherently to an expansion of state power.
Marxist Socialism as False Religion
It bears mentioning, especially in our capitalistic context, that Marxist socialism is not entirely bad. No idolatrous ideology is, or even (by definition) can be. Any and every ideology latches on to a good aspect of God’s creation, but elevates it to the status of deity and twists it toward wrong ends. An ideology composed solely of evil would not exist, because evil is only and ever a derivation of good. Satan cannot create; he can only distort and disfigure.
In the case of Marxist socialism, the good was Marx’s commendable desire to do away with poverty. He not only saw, but deeply felt the devastation poverty brings. He understood intuitively that poverty casts a long shadow, not merely in a lack of physical resources, but in the psychology and culture of those mired in it. Marx and his wife Jenny struggled with poverty themselves in the 1850s, a time in which they saw three of their six children die. Even those who disagree with Marx’s project should recognize that his theoretical work was rooted in personal compassion and a desire for humanity to flourish.
However, Marxist socialism, with most other versions of socialism, is not an appropriate alternative to the excesses of capitalism. Beginning with the commendable desire for material equality and communal ownership of property, socialism goes too far, extending communal ownership beyond its normative limits. In other words, it transforms material equality into a deity. Thus this otherwise anodyne goal becomes a beast whose tentacles reach past the public square and into every sphere of life, including the arts and sciences, business and entrepreneurship, education and scholarship, and even home and family life. Socialism offers a critique of society that becomes inherently totalizing (including every sphere of culture) and radical (seeking to reconstruct from the roots up).
Marxism, like the world religions, provides a comprehensive way of viewing the world, of interpreting various social and cultural phenomena. It identifies one aspect of society, economically-based class struggle, and demonizes it as the overriding evil corrupting life in this world. And if class struggle is the devil, Marxism is god, the only viable route to “salvation.”
What makes Marxism particularly persistent is its full-bodied eschatology. As David Koyzis notes, most non-Marxist forms of socialism never provided a clear enough view of the societal end goal. They merely encouraged society to work hard to achieve a socialist state. But Marx promised that socialism would win the day. In his mind, socialism was better than competing economic theories or religions because history was on its side. Koyzis writes:
This then is the primary appeal of the Marxian vision: much as Scripture teaches the ultimate victory of Jesus Christ over his enemies and the reign of the righteous over the new earth in the kingdom of God, so also does Marxism promise an eschatological consummation of human history.
Additionally, as Koyzis notes, Marx provides a type of ecclesiology. For Marx, a person’s primary community is economic class (not family, church, nation, or state). In his plan, the “redeemed community” would be one in which such class divisions have been erased. As a false religion, Marxism’s salvation comes from within history, is ushered in by socialist humanity, and will eventuate in a redeemed community. Or so it was hoped.
Negative Consequences of Marxist Socialism
The Marxist project has been shown to be bankrupt by its own benchmark—the course of history. Marxist socialism did not win the day, because Marxism is an idolatrous ideology. It elevated one aspect of creational life over all others, and even over God himself. Thus it is no surprise that it also subverts human flourishing.
One of the clearest examples of Marxism’s dead-ends is its desire to abolish private property. Owning property is closely tied to freedom and liberty—which is why property ownership arises so often in political theory. And when, as in Marxism, the government takes public ownership of most property, it reduces our liberty and freedom as citizens. Your property is no longer yours; the rules for that property, then, are dictated from without.
Another example is Marxist socialism’s disastrous effect on the economy. The economy cannot be centrally planned, as Marxists have attempted to do, in an effective manner. The economist Ludwig von Mises is well known for demonstrating that (1) economic calculation is necessary for economic activity, (2) pricing is necessary for economic calculation, and (3) a free market is necessary for pricing. The Soviet version of Marxist socialism provides a tragic illustration of the deleterious effects of a centrally planned economy.
Prices were determined not by supply and demand, but artificially by the government. Officials in the capital determined everything from the prices of eggs in Leningrad, to the price of tractors in the farms outside of Kazan, to the price of heart surgeries in the hospitals of Moscow. The result was that incentives to work with creativity and excellence disappeared. With no financial reward for innovation or hard work, innovation and hard work were scarce. After all, 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. The overall effect is that the culture stays flat or declines rather than progressing and making breakthroughs. The larger the economy, the more devastating the decline.
A final criticism, and a very serious one, is that socialist forms of government have to be more coercive than democratic capitalist forms. Like other ideologies, socialism worships a jealous god. The idol of economic equality eventually demands that anybody or anything that gets in its way should be sacrificed on the altar. The Soviet experiment is illustrative, though it is by no means the only example, as the Communist Party increasingly used systematic terror to try to usher in the Communist utopia by force. Systematic terror was not only possible, but easy, because socialism had already put nearly all power in the government’s hands. It is no accident that most versions of 20thcentury socialism were authoritarian or totalitarian.
Socialism still compels many today; its vision of equality is grand. Yet untethered from a biblical framework, “equality” becomes a weapon in the hands of an increasingly strong and frighteningly brutal state. No idol, however beautiful, can bear the weight of our eschatological hopes and dreams. If we wish to see equality in our world, it will not be through a socialist ideology. It will only come when something greater—Someone greater—is on the throne.
[Editor’s note: this is the third installment of a seven-part series exposing the idolatrous nature of modern political ideologies. For a constructive alternative to modern political ideologies, see the author’s recently released One Nation Under God: A Christian Hope for American Politics (co-authored with Chris Pappalardo).]
 Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, “The Communist Manifesto,” in Karl Marx, Selected Writings, ed. Lawrence H. Simon (Indianapolis: Hackett, 1994), 158-59. Emphasis added.
 Ibid., 158-186.
 David T. Koyzis, Political Visions & Illusions: A Survey & Christian Critique of Contemporary Ideologies (Grand Rapids: IVP, 2003), 172.
 Ibid., 172-3.
 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.
Bruce Ashford is the Provost at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary, where he also serves as Professor of Theology and Culture. He co-authored the recently-released "One Nation Under God: A Christian Hope for American Politics" (B&H Academic, Dec. 2015) with Chris Pappalardo. Follow him on Twitter @BruceAshford.