What Marx may have gotten right

Posted: March 8, 2012 in Religion
Tags: , , ,

One of the biggest misconceptions about China is that it’s given up on socialism in all but name – that by embracing capitalism, the Communist Party has tossed aside Marx, only invoking his name as lip-service to the CCP’s revolutionary roots. In fact, socialism is still the goal. It’s simply the next step on Marx’s stages of development, which consists of:

  1. Primitive Communism
  2. Slave Society
  3. Feudalism
  4. Capitalism
  5. Socialism
  6. Communism

Marx devoted a lot of ink to the 4th stage, where he said capitalist oppressors exploit the underclass and use religion as an “opiate” to keep them content with their repression. Eventually when stage 5 arrives, equality will make religion obsolete.

In 1949, China was more-or-less at stage 3. Mao thought he could just make a “Great Leap” to stage 5 by enforcing the tenants of a socialist society with an authoritarian hand. This included wiping out religion. The next 30 years under this policy were unsuccessful to put it mildly.

Eventually though, Deng Xiaoping came to power and acknowledged that stage 4 is kind of important. So along with a capitalist economy, he accepted religion with the expectation that it would gradually die out on its own through the natural progression of Marxism.

Fast forward 33 years to now and China is living through the worst of the capitalist excesses Marx wrote about. Recent stories on Foxconn have illustrated that, in spite of some improvements in recent years, China’s workers still endure conditions deplorable by western standards. Last month, Elizabeth Economy also revealed statistics that show how the land grab epidemic and exploitation of farmers is getting worse. And last week, Bloomberg highlighted China’s mammoth wealth inequality and marriage of money and politics. Their report said that the 70 richest delegates in China’s National People’s Congress have a combined $89.8 billion. This compares to $7.5 billion for all 660 top officials in the U.S. government.

When faced with such problems, there’s one thing people around the world tend to turn to: Prayer. To see an extreme example of the power of faith during times of exploitation, we can look back to American and European slavery.  By the time the American Civil War came, the slave population was almost entirely Christian. Masters encouraged this because it gave slaves hope for the next world. With the promise of heavenly reward for hard faithful work, inclinations to seek freedom in Earthly life were subdued.

In one form or another, exploitation continued through the industrial revolution as the lower class created capital that mostly went to the upper class. But then the West eventually reached “development.” Some governments have even stepped in and made healthcare and education universally obtainable, which has helped push down wealth inequality. Several western countries are now moving toward what some might consider socialism through these policies. And a funny thing is happening: Religion is shrinking. Nowhere is this more apparent than in Scandinavia.

Those countries have pushed down wealth inequality to the lowest levels in the world, while per-capita wealth and happiness are among the highest. These countries also now happen to be the least religious.

Marxism is lacking in many areas, but it may not be as discredited as previously thought. Pitzer College sociology associate professor Phil Zuckerman has done research that compares religiosity and societal health. His findings show that countries with higher levels of organic atheism do indeed correlate with better indicators of a healthy society. I asked Zuckerman how this fits with Marx’s theory of religion and development.

“Research does support Marx,” he said, regarding religion. “At least to the extent that we know that societies that are ‘secure’ — people have enough to eat, somewhere to live, access to education, health care, and they live in free, open democracies (unlike China!) — such societies tend to be less religious. Conversely, societies that are poor, chaotic, wracked with warfare, instability, etc. — these societies tend to be more religious.”

Whether it’s Weber’s work ethic, Marx’s opiate, or a little of both, data suggests religion plays a role in developing societies and allowing the accumulation of capital. But then affluence, education and equality largely make the supernatural aspect obsolete. So when talking about morality or social effects, secular countries like China – where atheism has been forced from above – are a world apart from secular countries like Sweden. Sweden may be secular now, but it did develop under a religious moral framework.

Nobody can yet say whether the religious work ethicmoral framework or “opiate” are absolutely necessary for China to develop to the level of Western countries, or if Confucianism will be able to pick up the slack. But the developed club is so far overwhelmingly made up of countries that have gone through periods of majority religious populations.

The Chinese government isn’t blind to this. Many in the still-very-authoritarian Communist Party see the potential for religion and want to guide its development…on their terms. But, as Zuckerman pointed out, China’s capitalism is still missing one key ingredient from Marx’s scheme: Democracy. Tomorrow, we’ll wrap up this series by looking at how that’s affecting the potential of religion in China.


Christianity series Part 1: Can Lei Feng compete with Jesus?

Christianity series Part 2: The new Christians

Christianity series Part 3: Divine economics

Christianity series Part 5: Communist Christianity

  1. Meryl Mackay aka 马美丽 says:

    I really enjoyed reading this. I am a member of the UK Humanist Society and recently it paid for London buses to carry the message “There is Probably no God so Just Enjoy Your Life”. Some of my Chinese friends in Beijing are disappointed at my lack of religion as they seem to view attending church as middle class aspirational. Can’t wait to read your final post on this subject. Thank you!

  2. King Tubby says:

    Eric. A very crude and teleological 101 version of Marx’s view of modes of production.

  3. Joel says:

    These graphs are pretty meaningless, imo, for two fatal reasons.

    1) They employ a hopelessly flawed “religious” category (ditto for “prayer”). Do we really think it makes sense to categorize all the various Christianities of Western nations togehter with African animism? If we’re looking at the actual character, function, behaviours, and worldviews of whatever traditions, ideologies, etc. (“memeplexes”, if you must) are involved, then it would make more sense, for example, to categorize 21st-century neo-atheism with certain forms of fundamentalist Christianity. There’s more in common there than there is between, say mainstream American evangelicalism, the old Christendom state churches of Europe, and African traditional religions. The ‘similarities’ by which people categorize ‘religions’ in the way that the graphs have are superficial to the point of uselessness. We can draw that huge circle if we want, but it’s so broad it can’t tell us anything.

    2) If we plotted “Wealth” with “degree of influence from the Judeo-Christian heritage in historical development”, we’d have essentially the same graph: Western ‘Protestant’ nations and France clumped together, supposedly making the opposite point. In other words, it’s just playing with numbers, not anything even approaching (or attempting) real statistical analysis.

    Other than serving as a flaky anti-religious internet meme, that graph is pretty useless, imo. That kind of thing is made for insiders looking to affirm their beliefs, not for serious engagement with data.

  4. Alliana says:

    well, you sure gave me another review of sociology. at least you did it in a way that didn’t bore me to tears like when i was assigned to reading a book. this one was much more brief and yet packed with info. hmmm… when you think of it that way, it makes someone like me depressed. that would mean christianity would eventually become obsolete. *melts into a goo made of sadness* although i don’t really believe that’s true. i’m sure there’ll still be people who’ll believe although i agree it will not be in the same numbers as in the past. still, nice article!

  5. jixiang says:

    You say all developed countries went through a period where the population was mainly religious. What about Japan? East Asian Confucian societies can’t be compared to Western or Muslim ones in this regard. The tradition is just different. Religion never played as important a role as it did elsewhere.

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