An Evaluation of Marxist Humanism (Part 1 of 2)

An Evaluation of Marxist Humanism

Part 1 of 2

by Norman L. Geisler

Judged by the standard of political influence, Marxism is the most widespread form of humanism in the world. Its founder, Karl Marx, was born in 1818 to a German Jewish family which was converted to Lutheranism when he was six. As a university student he was influenced heavily by Georg Hegel’s idealism and he adopted Ludwig Feuerbach’s atheism. After some radical political activity, which resulted in expulsion from France in 1845, he teamed up with Friedrich Engels to produce the Communist Manifesto (1848). With the economic support of Engels’s prosperous textile business Marx spent years of research in the British Museum and produced his famous Das Kapital (1867). These and succeeding Marxist writings have bequeathed a form of humanistic thought that is politically dominant in much of the world.

The Marxist View of God and Religion

Even as a college student Marx was a militant atheist who believed that the “criticism of religion is the foundation of all criticism.” For this criticism Marx drew heavily on the radical young Hegelian, Ludwig Feuerbach. Engels admitted that Feuerbach influenced them more than did any other post-Hegelian philosopher. [1] He triumphantly spoke of Feuerbach’s Essence of Christianity which “with one blow . . . pulverized [religion] . . . in that without circumlocution it placed materialism on the throne again.”[2]

There were three basic premises Marx learned from Feuerbach. First, “the teaching that man is the highest essence for man”[3] was accepted. This means that there is a categorical imperative to over-throw anything—especially religion—which debases man. Secondly, Marx accepted the premise of Feuerbach that “man makes religion, religion does not make man.”[4] In other words, religion is the self-consciousness of man who has lost himself and then found himself again as “God.” Thirdly, Marx also accepted the Feuerbachian belief that “all religion … is nothing but the fantastic reflection in men’s minds of those external forces which control their daily life, a reflection in which the terrestrial forces assume the form of supernatural forces.”[5] In brief, God is nothing but a projection of human imagination. God did not make man in His image; man has made “God” in his image.

Marx’s atheism, however, went well beyond Feuerbach. Marx agreed with the materialists that “matter is not a product of mind, but mind itself is merely the highest product of matter.”[6] That is, he agreed with Feuerbach that man in seeking his origin must look backward to pure matter. Marx, however, objected that Feuerbach did not go forward in the social domain. For Feuerbach by no means wished to abolish religion; he wanted to perfect it.[7] Feuerbach, reasoned Marx, did not see that the “religious sentiment” is itself a social product.[8] Hence “he [did] not grasp the significance of ‘revolutionary’ of ‘practical-critical,’ activity.”[9] Feuerbach did not realize, in the words of Marxism’s famous slogan, that “religion is the opium of the people.”[10] Man needs to take the drug of religion because this world is not adequate to assure him of his complete and integrated development. So he compensates himself with the image of another, more perfect world.[11]

In going beyond Feuerbach, Marx argued that “nowadays, in our evolutionary conception of the universe, there is absolutely no room for either a Creator or a Ruler; and to talk of a Supreme Being shut out from the whole existing world [as deism does] implies a contra-diction in terms.”[12] Hence, concluded Marx, “the only service that can be rendered to God today is to declare atheism a compulsory article of faith and … [to prohibit] religion generally.”[13]

Marx had no illusions that religion would immediately cease to exist when socialism was adopted. Since religion is but a reflex of the real world, religion will not vanish until the practical relations of everyday life offer to man perfect relations with regard to his fellow men and to nature[14]—that is, until the communist utopia is realized.

 The Marxist View of Man

Basically Marxism holds a materialistic view of man’s origin and nature. This, of course, entails an evolutionary concept of man’s origin.

The Origin of Man

Darwin’s Origin of Species was published in 1859. Marx’s Das Kapital came out only eight years later (in 1867). Evolution for Marx was a helpful addition to his materialistic understanding of the origin of man.[15] “Mind is the product of matter,” he wrote; that is, mind has evolved from material stuff. The nonliving matter has always been; it has produced the living, and finally, the nonintelligent has produced the intelligent (man).

Marx had written his doctoral thesis (at the University of Jena, 1841) on the materialistic philosophies of two early Greek philosophers, Epicurus and Democritus. Then with the subsequent support of Darwinian evolution he could explain the origin of human life as the product of evolutionary processes in a material world—there was no longer any need to speak of God.

The Nature of Man

Marx was not interested in pure philosophy, which he dismissed as mere speculation and quite useless when compared to the vital task of changing the world.[16] Hence he was not particularly interested in philosophical materialism. His being designated a materialist, however, does not mean that he denied mind altogether (as he denied life after death). Rather he believed that everything about man, including his mind, is determined by his material conditions. “For us,” said Marx, “mind is a mode of energy, a function of brain; all we know is that the material world is governed by immutable laws, and so forth.”[17] This view would fit with what philosophers call epiphenomenalism, according to which consciousness is nonmaterial but dependent on material things for its existence.

Karl Marx was more interested in man in the concrete, in man as a social being. He believed that “the real nature of man is the total of social nature.”[18] Apart from the obvious biological facts such as man’s need for food, Marx tended to downplay individual human existence. He believed that what is true of one man at one time in one society is also true of all men at all times in all places.[19] Thus it is not [that] the consciousness of men . . . determines their being, but . . . their social being determines their consciousness.”[20] In short, psychology is reducible to sociology, but sociology is not reducible to psychology.

One important generalization Marx makes about human nature is that man is a socially active being who distinguishes himself from other animals in that he produces his means of subsistence.[21] That is, it is natural for men to work for their living. Thus, Marx concludes, it is right for men to have a life of productive activity, to be workers.

The Alienation of Man

Men who do not find fulfillment in industrial labor will experience alienation. This alienation will be eliminated when private property is done away with.[22] Private property, however, is not the cause but a consequence of alienation.[23] The alienation itself consists in the fact that the work is not part of the worker’s nature. He is not fulfilled in work because it is forced on him so that someone else may be fulfilled Even the objects he produces are alien to him because they are owned by another. The cure for this ill will be the future communist society in which everyone can cultivate his talent by working for the good of the whole commune of mankind.[24] It is in this sense that Marxism is appropriately called a humanism.

The Marxist View of the World and History

 The Dialectic of History

 As has been noted already, Marx’s overall view of the world is materialistic. He uses the term historical materialism to designate that view of the course of history which seeks the ultimate cause and the great moving power of all important historic events in the economic development of society.[25] Further, Marx can be classified as a dialectical materialist, following in the tradition of the Hegelian dialectic of thesis, antithesis, and synthesis.[26] History is unfolding according to a universal dialectical law the outworking of which can be predicted the way an astronomer predicts an eclipse. In the preface to Das Kapital Marx compares his method to that of a physicist: “The ultimate aim of this work is to lay bare the economic law of motion of modern society” He also speaks of the natural laws of capitalistic production as “working with iron necessity toward inevitable results.”[27]

The dialectic of modern history is that the thesis of capitalism is opposed by the antithesis of socialism, which will unavoidably give way to the ultimate synthesis of communism. History is predetermined like the course of the stars, except that the laws governing history are not mechanical but economic in nature. Man is economically determined. That is, “the mode of production of material life determines the general character of the social, political, and spiritual processes of life.”[28] This, of course, does not mean that man is determined solely by economic factors. Marx means only that the economic is the primary or dominant influence on man’s social character. Engels emphatically proclaimed, “More than this neither Marx nor I have ever asserted. Hence if somebody twists this into saying that the economic element is the only determining one, he transforms that proposition into a meaningless, abstract, senseless phrase.”[29]

The Future of Capitalism

 On the basis of his assumption that the dialectic of history is carried out by means of economic determinism, Marx confidently predicted that capitalism would become increasingly unstable and that the class struggle between the bourgeoisie (ruling class) and the proletariat (working class) would intensify. The poor would become larger and poorer until, by a major social revolution, they would seize power and institute the new communist phase of history.[30]

The fact that these predictions did not come to pass remains an embarrassment to Marxist theory. It casts doubt on the scientific and predictive value of orthodox Marxism.

The Future Communistic Utopia

According to Marx, capitalism has internal problems which will eventually lead to a communistic economic system. For as the masses become more numerous and the capitalists fewer, the latter will control great concentrations of productive equipment which they will throttle for their own gain. But the masses will then sweep aside the capitalists as a hindrance to production and seize an industrial economy which has been carried to the edge of perfection by self-liquidating capitalism Thus there will emerge a progressive society with no wages, no money, no social classes, and eventually no state. This communist utopia will simply be a free association of producers under their own conscious control. Society will ultimately realize the communist ideal: “From each according to his ability, to each according to his need.”[31] There will, however, be the need for an intermediate period of “the dictatorship of the proletariat.”[32] But in the higher stage the state will vanish and true freedom will begin.

The Marxist Ethic

There are several characteristic dimensions of the ethics of Marxism. Three of these are relativism, utilitarianism, and collectivism.


 Since Marxism is atheistic, and since, as Nietzsche rioted, when God dies all absolute value dies with Him, it is understandable that Marxist ethics is relativistic. That is, there are no moral absolutes. There are two reasons for this.

First, there is no external, eternal realm. The only absolute is the inexorable progress of the unfolding dialectic of history. Engels wrote, “We therefore reject every attempt to impose on us any moral dogma whatever as an eternal, ultimate and forever immutable law on the pretext that the moral world has its permanent principles which transcend history.”[33]

Secondly, there is no such thing as a nature or essence of man which could serve as a foundation for general principles of human conduct. Man’s ideas of good and evil are determined by man’s concrete place in the socioeconomic structure. In brief, class struggle generates its own ethic.


On what basis are one’s actions regarded as moral? The answer is, they are regarded as moral if they serve to create a new communist society. Actions can be justified by their end. Lenin once defined morality as that which serves to destroy the exploiting capitalistic society and to unite workers in creating a new communist society,[34] in effect saying that the end justifies the means.[35] This is the communist’s equivalent of utilitarianism’s “greatest good for the greatest number in the long run.” Whatever promotes the ultimate cause of communism is good, and what hinders it is evil.


Another feature of Marxist ethics is that the universal transcends the individual. This is a heritage from Hegel, who believed that the perfect life is possible only when the individual is organically integrated into the ethical totality. For Marx, however, the highest ethical totality is not the state (as it was for Hegel) but “universal freedom of will.” Note that this “freedom” is not individual but corporate and universal. The difference from Hegel is that the emphasis is shifted from the state to society, from the body politic to the body public.

According to Marx, in the perfect society private morals are eliminated and the ethical ideals of the community are achieved. This will be accomplished, of course, by material production. For material production determines religion, metaphysics, and morality.[36]

An Evaluation of Marxist Humanism

 Several aspects of Marxism call for comment here. Some comments will be of a positive nature; a large number, however, will point out weaknesses in Marx’s philosophy.

Positive Contributions of Marxism

Marx’s concern for the condition of workers is to be commended. Working conditions in Europe and North America are vastly improved today from those of over a century ago when Marx wrote and this is at least partially due to the pressure applied by Marxists. Likewise, Marx is certainly right in attacking the view that workers are merely a means to the end of capitalistic gain. Thus there has been a significant humanistic contribution in that Marxist philosophy places man over money.

Another positive contribution of Marxism has been its corrective on unlimited and uncontrolled capitalism. Any system which permits the rich to get richer and makes the poor poorer without limits is bound to produce ethical abuses. In the ancient Jewish economy this possibility was checked by the Year of Jubilee (every fiftieth year), when acquisitions were returned to their original owners.[37]

Finally, the millennial aspirations of Marxism are noble. Indeed, the Marxist philosophy of history encourages men to work toward the goal of overcoming the perceived evils of the present world. It is this humanistic vision which has captured the imagination and dedication of many young thinkers.

Negative Features of Marxism

Marxism is subject to numerous critiques. We will briefly indicate some of the more significant ones.

First, the dogmatic atheism of Marxism is unfounded. It is self-defeating to insist that God is nothing but a projection of human imagination. “Nothing but” statements presume “more than” knowledge. One cannot know that God is confined to imagination unless one’s knowledge goes beyond mere imagination.

Second, Marx’s deterministic view of history is ill founded. Not only is it contrary to fact—since things have not worked out as Marx predicted—but it is a category mistake to assume that economic influence works like physical laws.

Third, a materialistic view of man ignores the rich spiritual and religious aspects of human nature, to say nothing of the evidence for man’s immateriality and immortality.

Fourth, in its strongest form ethical relativism is self-destructive. The absolute denial of absolutes cuts its own throat. And to replace one absolute with another (the communist end) does not avoid absolutism. Also, the fallacies of the “end justifies the means” ethic are infamous.

Fifth, Marxism holds out an admirably idealistic goal (a human utopia) but has a miserable record of achievement. Life in Marxist countries has been more like hell than heaven. While the goal of a perfect community is desirable, the revolutionary means of achieving it is highly dubious. Every country that experienced a communist revolution ended up seeing a system that is even more repressive and oppressive than the flawed system it displaced. Where the standard of living improved for some in the short term it was at the expense of the many whose property and wealth was seized while they were murdered, sent to labor camps for reeducation, or sent to collective farms to serve as slave labor. And ultimately the promise of equality for all proved to be equal poverty and oppression for the people while the few at the top enjoyed what little wealth was left over. Also the means for maintaining the system—brainwashing campaigns, fear of the secret police force, networks of secret informers, etc.—after failing to deliver on its promises is dystopian. From a Christian perspective the means of transforming mankind is not revolution and reprogramming but regeneration. It begins not with the birth of a new government but with the birth of new men and new women—that is, the new birth (John 3:5).

Sixth, Marx’s view of capitalistic systems was short-sighted, shallow, and based on a stereotype. While his critique of the unbridled, compassionless capitalism at work England in the nineteenth century was warranted and insightful, it wrongly assumed that capitalist systems were impossible to gently reform in a politically and the only possible option was a violent and bloody overthrow. Marx was wrong. Several capitalistic countries were able to implement several types of reforms and implement controls without violence.[38]

Seventh, Marx’s view of religion is superficial. He should have heeded his father’s exhortation to him at age seventeen: “Faith [in God] is a real [requirement] of man sooner or later, and there are moments in life when even the atheist is [involuntarily] drawn to worship the Almighty.”[39] Or better yet, in view of his later tumultuous life and the revolutions his thought has precipitated in the world, Marx should have applied his own earlier thoughts:

Union with Christ bestows inner exaltation, consolation in suffering, calm assurance, and a heart which is open to love of mankind, to all that is noble, to all that is great, not out of ambition, not through the desire of fame, but only because of Christ.[40]

Karl Marx’s own father feared it was the desire for fame which transformed Karl’s Christian conscience into a demonic passion. In March 1837 he admonished his ambitious son:

From time to time, my heart revels in the thoughts of you and your future. And yet, from time to time, I cannot escape the sad, suspicious, fearful thoughts that strike like lightning: Does your heart match your head and your talents? Does it have room for the earthly but gentler feelings that are such an essential consolation to the sensitive human being in this vale of sorrows? Is the demon, which is clearly not given to or dominated by everybody, of a celestial or a Faustian nature?[41]



[1] See Marx and Engels on Religion, ed. Reinhold Niebuhr (New York: Schocken, 1964), 214.

[2] Ibid, 224.

[3] Ibid, 50.

[4] Ibid, 41.

[5] Ibid, 147.

[6] Ibid, 231.

[7] Ibid, 237.

[8] Ibid, 71.

[9] Ibid, 69.

[10] Ibid, 35.

[11] Ibid, 36.

[12] Ibid, 295. Even agnosticism was rejected by Marx: “What, indeed, is agnosticism but, to use an expressive Lancashire term, ‘shamefaced’ materialism? The agnostic conception of nature is materialistic throughout.”

[13] Ibid, 143.

[14] Ibid, 136.

[15] At Marx’s burial, Engels eulogized him saying, “just as Darwin discovered the law of evolution in organic nature, so Marx discovered the law of evolution human history.” Robert L. Heilbroner, The Worldly Philosophers: The Lives, Times, and Ideas of Great Economic Thinkers. (Simon and Shuster: New York: 1986) 170

[16] See Marx, Selected Writings in Sociology and Social Philosophy, trans. T. B. Bottomore (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1964), 82.

[17] Marx and Engels on Religion, 298.

[18] Marx, Selected Writings, 83.

[19] Ibid, 91-92.

[20] Ibid, 67.

[21] Ibid, 69.

[22] Ibid, 250.

[23] Ibid, 176.

[24] Ibid, 177, 253.

[25] Marx and Engels on Religion, 298.

[26] Hegel himself rejected this dialectic, though it is commonly attributed to him. See Gustav E. Mueller, “The Hegel Legend of Thesis-Antithesis-Synthesis,” Journal of the History of Ideas 19, no. 3 (1958): 411-414.

[27] Das Kapital, ed. Friedrich Engels, trans. Samuel Moore and Edward Aveling, in Great Books of the Western World, ed. Robert Maynard Hutchins (Chicago: Encyclopedia Britannica, 19521, vol.50, 6.

[28] Marx, Selected Writings, 67; cf. 70, 90, 111ff.

[29] Marx and Engels on Religion, 274.

[30] See Marx, Selected Writings, 79-80, 147ff., 236.

[31] Ibid, 263.

[32] Ibid, 261.

[33] Quoted in R. N. Carew Hunt, The Theory and Practice of Communism. New York: Macmillan, 1962), 87-88.

[34] Ibid, 89.

[35] Some neo-Marxists have rejected this, insisting that means are subject to the same moral principles as the end. But they have thereby departed from orthodox Marxism. See George H. Hampsch, The Theory of Communism (Secaucus, N. J.: Citadel, 1965), 127.

[36] See Marx, The Communist Manifesto, ed. Samuel H. Beer (New York: Appleton Century-Crofts, 1955), 177.

[37] Leviticus 25.

[38] Robert L. Heilbroner. The Worldly Philosophers: The Lives, Times, and Ideas of Great Economic Thinkers. (Touchstone: 1986). 166-169.

[39] Letter from Trier, November 18, 1835.

[40] Written by Marx between August 10 and 16, 1835.

[41] Saul K. Padover, Karl Marx: An Intimate Biography. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1978), 97.

Copyright 1983, 2016 – Norman L. Geisler –  All rights reserved

This essay is adapted from Chapter Five of Norman Geisler’s Is Man the Measure? An Evaluation of Contemporary Humanism (Wipf & Stock: 1983). It will also be reproduced in Norm’s forthcoming book Is Man the Measure: An Evaluation of Contemporary Humanism and Transhumanism (Bastion Books: 2017).

Read Part 2 of 2 here.

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