The Failure of The Marxist Idea of Charity

By KC Lopez

“From each according to his ability; to each according to his needs.” Here is the one truly beautiful idea that Socialism has ever brought into the world. Karl Marx famously popularized it, claiming that this would become the banner of Socialist Man once his theories had ended want and rendered labor voluntary, once one’s work had graduated from a constant, weary necessity to become the supreme joy and purpose of the individual. Scholars debate where he found the idea, but it undeniably has a forebear in the charter written by the men who were bound for the new colony of Connecticut in 1639, in what is now called the Guilford Covenant:

“We whose names are herein written, intending by God’s gracious permission, to plant ourselves in New England… do faithfully promise each for ourselves and families and those that belong to us, that we will, the Lord assisting us, sit down and join ourselves together in one entire plantation [colony] and to be helpful to the other in any common work, according to every man’s ability and as need shall require, and we promise not to desert or leave each other on the plantation but with the consent of the rest, or the greater part of the company, who have entered into this engagement.”

Whether Marx could have known of such a document is unlikely; nevertheless, it makes clear that this, perhaps the only really beautiful thing Marx ever wrote, is in the end an undeniably Christian idea. In a word, the virtue described is an aspect of the Christian idea of charity, that is, not merely the provision a community makes for those less fortunate, but a sacrifice of one’s self for the whole of the community in the godly bonds of love.

Many of Marx’s ideas are Christian in their origin; he was, after all, a highly educated European of the early 19th century, and would have been familiar with some common tenets of the faith and certainly with the popular ideas moving in leftist Christian circles. But it was the then-common heretical notion of millennialism - an obsession with the thousand years of peace and the belief that the church could bring it about before the returning of Christ in the clouds - that finds its clearest distillation in Marx. 

To him, and to Communists since, the eschaton would be that revolution in which the great masses would amicably awake to discern clearly the strange dream-like lies that had kept them weak and oppressed, and arise as one against that small minority which had so tricked them. But the result would be, after a likely brief, decisive final struggle, the same: they would beat their swords into plowshares, the wolf would lie down with the lamb, and the song of the redeemed - l’internationale - would become the shared song of the human race.

That all of this is impossible has already been rendered a trite, common, smug truism before our present century, one at which many, to borrow a Quranic phrase, chew at their own fingers in vain. No heir of Marx has ever succeeded in proving so much as a test-case, however small, in which his economic theories brought about an end to want. 

That’s largely because the method they chose involved the radical centralization of charity, or in other words, the awakened masses would voluntarily give over the whole fruit of their labor to the state, ideally a relatively small one, and lovingly accept only that which they truly need in return. The individual lives a life of charity that comes to and from the singular point of that act we call taxation. And here is the key difference that warps the original Christian idea beyond recognition. 

Christianity proposes the radical decentralization of charity: to each according to his labor, from each according to his will. Paul, as he is so anxious to tell us, worked himself to the bone so that none might claim to have supported him; in the sweat of thy brow shalt thou eat bread. But let not thy left hand know what thy right hand doeth; and thy Father which seeth in secret shall reward thee openly. The whole of the law is summed up in two commandments: first, in the complete love of God in which all of our heart, soul and mind are His own, and the second, like unto it, is that we love our neighbors as ourselves. 

The Golden Rule, as has been noted joyfully by professors for centuries, is not a unique Christian doctrine, but is found in every philosophy in the world. But this second and great commandment is the completion, the practical limit of that rule which has no counterpart in any religion: that we are commanded to love others as ourselves. We are not commanded merely to be nice to our neighbors, to deal fairly with them and do no harm, but rather to take our own selfish, nagging, entitled regard we have for ourselves and offer it instead to everyone else. We cast out the worst of ourselves by pouring out the best of ourselves.

The problem then is that we have another beautiful idea, like the Marxist idea of centralized charity, but when we cast our eye to history and to the world around us, we still do not see any place of great universal contentment where all truly love their neighbors as themselves and therefore all can eat their fill. So then, Christianity is just as futile as Marxism! A brief couple of centuries may have passed without achieving the Marxist utopia, but Christianity has had two full millennia! Surely, if this radical decentralization of giving had any effect, there would be no hunger or want in any truly Christian society! So says the skeptic.

And this is true. None of us live now, nor shall we live, in paradise, until we behold Our Lord descending in the same manner in which He went up. We too have an eschaton. But we also have the here and now; unlike the Marxists, our radical charity can be practiced, and is to great effect. This is no vague hypothetical. Since the Church began, there is a long, miraculous history of individuals who really did give radically of themselves for their fellow man. 

Think of the little Macedonian peasant woman, Mother Teresa, who daily kept thousands of the world’s poorest from starvation, or the English woman who found soldiers suffering more from squalor than their wounds and worked day and night to heal them, and so became the Hippocrates of nurses. Then there are the thousands like them whose names either went unrecorded or undiscovered, pouring their own lives into the love of others. Think of what the world might be without all of those who quietly offered even small parts of themselves in charity to those far or near that unquestionably sent comfort and love to every corner of the world.

And that is the ultimate argument. The lone Marxist is of absolutely no effect. The whole of his hope in a better world is predicated on the assumption of revolution, that the masses will rise up to live in a state built atop Marxist ideology. When asked “what must I do to be saved” he has no real answer, can promise no salvation, only slogans about how the world ought to be. If he wants to redistribute wealth, his only hope is to go and sell all he has and give it to the poor. But then, he would no longer be practicing Marxism at all, but something more.

He would be doing the will of Jesus Christ.

K.C. Lopez is a postulant in the Diocese of Fort Worth. He begins studying for the priesthood at Nashotah House in the fall.

Forward in Christ

Proclaiming the Faith and Order of the Church, given to us by Christ.