Karl Marx’s Lenten Practice

Was Karl Marx a Christian? No. Nor is there any evidence that he observed Lent, the season of penitence that leads up to Easter. Nevertheless, let me suggest that Marx’s entire approach to capitalism was a Lenten Practice.

Not Lent as it is often observed — abstaining from chocolate, alcohol, or Facebook — but Lent as it might be observed — reflecting critically, and acting militantly, on behalf of the redemption of the world.

In traditional Protestant theology, at least since the eighteenth century, it has been argued that the modern world is an outgrowth of Christianity. Democracy is an expression of the abstract idea of humanity promoted if not by Jesus, then at least by Paul, and capitalism is an expression of the Christian idea of freedom. In the nineteenth century, the German thinker Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel showed how the modern liberal state was an outgrowth, an expression, of the Christian Spirit.

As a young student, Karl Marx was inclined to agree with Hegel. He simply thought that Hegel needed to be tweaked. Only once the working class was the universal class; only then would the Spirit be fully realized.

But, then, Marx had what can only be described as a conversion experience. Modern liberal capitalism was not the expression of the Spirit. It was the expression only of the spirit of capitalism. And that meant that it did not matter who owned it, capitalists or workers, or how it was owned, publicly or privately. What mattered, according to Marx, was whether or not human beings are dominated by labor, by what they do, and by commodities, by what they make. “True freedom,” Marx remarked at the end of volume three of Capital, only appears where “labor ends.”

This became Marx’s liturgy, his Lenten practice, if you will: ending the domination of labor over people’s lives.

This Lent, as we ease gently into a Biden-Harris neoliberal dream world, I am observing a Marxian Lenten practice. Please join me.

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