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The Protestant Era by Paul Tillich

Paul Tillich is generally considered one of the century's outstanding and influential thinkers. After teaching theology and philosophy at various German universities, he came to the United States in 1933. For many years he was Professor of Philosophical Theology at Union Theological Seminary in New York City, then University Professor at Harvard University. His books include Systematic Theology; The Courage to Be; Dynamics of Faith; Love, Power and Justice; Morality and Beyond; and Theology of Culture. The Protestant Era was published by The University of Chicago Press, Chicago, Illinois in 1948. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock<

Chapter 17: Marxism and Christian Socialism

Marxism has never been accepted indiscriminately and without a serious criticism by the religious-socialist movements. A large part of the theoretical foundation of religious socialism was dedicated to a thorough discussion of the doctrines of Marx and the Marxians. The result of these discussions, in most cases, was partly a rejection, partly an acceptance and an essential transformation of the Marxist teachings by leading religious socialists. Has this situation changed? Has the gap between Christianity and Marxism deepened, either because Marxism has lost its significance and its power to interpret the present world, or because Christianity has developed in an entirely divergent direction? There are, indeed, elements in Marxism which have become obsolete, and there are developments in Christianity which tend to disrupt any connection between it and the ideas of Marx and his followers. But this does not mean that all elements in Marxism have lost their significance and that the entire Christian theology has turned against Marxism. On the contrary—it seems to me that important elements of the Marxist method of thinking are merged with theological thought to such a degree that they are not recognized any more as taken over from Marxism. This is especially true of the realistic and pessimistic interpretation of the human situation by neosupernaturalism and dialectical theology. In order to come to a decision about this question we must first remember why and in which respect Marxism was appreciated and criticized by religious socialism

I. The Theological Appreciation of Marxism

The main reason for the theological appreciation of Marxism is a striking structural analogy between the prophetic and the Marxian interpretation of history. This has often been carried through and needs only to be mentioned. Both prophetism and Marxism are historical interpretations of history, that is, interpretations in which history has a meaning of its own and is not only a continuation of the general natural process or a place of preparation for the supra-natural. History has an aim toward which it is moving and the fulfillment of which is the meaning of every historical event. And since history has an end, it also has a beginning and a center, a point where its meaning becomes visible and in the light of which an interpretation of history becomes possible. Both prophetism and Marxism regard the fight between good and evil forces as the main content of history, describing the evil forces mainly as the forces of injustice and envisaging the ultimate victory of justice. This interpretation creates in both cases an eschatological mood, a tension of expectation, a directedness toward the future which is entirely lacking in all kinds of sacramental and mystical religion. Both prophetism and Marxism attack the existing order of society and personal piety as the expression of a universal evil in a special period. They passionately challenge concrete forms of injustice, threatening those responsible for it, especially the ruling groups, with the judgment of history and imminent destruction as the inescapable consequence of social injustice. Both prophetism and Marxism believe that the transition from the present stage of history into the stage of fulfillment will occur in a catastrophe or in a series of catastrophic events, the end of which will be the establishment of a kingdom of peace and justice and the symptoms of which are already recognizable to the divining or analytic spirit. The feeling that the catastrophic coming of the "new" is "at hand" is strong in both of them. Both prophetism and Marxism believe that certain minority groups within a selected nation or class are the real bearers of the historical destiny, that through their action the meaning of history is carried into reality. The free actions of these groups are considered as the instruments of the historical destiny. Freedom and historical destiny are not contradictory for prophetic and Marxist thinking. Mechanistic necessity, as well as accidental contingency of the process of history, is denied by both. Prophetic, as well as genuine Marxist, dialectics are above the level of this alternative.

The structural analogy between prophetism and Marxism is not confined to their interpretations of history. It also refers to main elements in their doctrines of man. This is true not only of the prophetic but also of the Christian doctrine of man generally. Man is not what he ought to be; his true being and his real existence contradict each other. Man is fallen, if not from an original actual goodness, at least from a stage of undeveloped innocence. He is estranged from himself and his true humanity, he has been dehumanized, he has become an object, a means of profit, a quantity of working power—according to Marx. He is estranged from his divine destiny, he has lost the true dignity of his being, the image of God, he is separated from his fellow-man by pride, cupidity, and the will-to-power—according to Christianity. Christianity and Marxism agree that the nature of man cannot be determined from above history, that man’s historical existence is decisive for every doctrine of man. And they agree that the nature of man cannot be determined by the characteristics of the individual man. Man is a social being, and his evil as well as his good is dependent on his social existence. Perdition and salvation are universal and historical. The individual as an individual cannot escape the former and cannot reach the latter. He is a part of a fallen world, whether the fall is expressed in religious or sociological terms; and he can become a part of a new world, whether this new world is conceived of in terms of a supra-historical or an infra-historical transformation. From this it follows that the idea of the truth in both Christianity and Marxism lies beyond the separation of theory and practice. The truth must be "done" in order to be recognized. Without a transformation of reality, no true knowledge of reality is possible. The situation of knowing is decisive for one’s ability or inability to know. Only the "spiritual man can judge everything, according to Paul, and only the man who participates in the struggle of the "elected group" against the class society is able to understand the true character of being. Expressed in more concrete terms, the church or the fighting proletariat is the place where truth has the greatest chance to be accepted. In all the other spheres the general distortion of our historical existence makes it difficult, if not impossible, to find a true insight into the human situation and through it into being itself. The fate of self-deception or— as Marx called it—of the production of ideologies is inescapable, except in selected groups which are predominantly composed of people in ultimate anxiety, despair, and meaninglessness. On the boundary of all human possibilities the new possibility arises and gains power. If all ideological veils are torn down and self-deception is no longer possible, truth can appear and can be acted upon. And it is revealed only in the measure in which it is acted upon. The protest of the reformers against the "self-made" gods or idols and the protest of Marx against the self-made ideas or ideologies challenge the same spiritual danger of man in his present existence: to make the truth a means of religious pride or political will-to-power. In all these points Christianity and Marxism are united in their opposition to a "Pelagian" or "harmonistic" optimism with respect to the nature of man.

II. The Theological Criticism of Marxism

The basic difference between religious socialism and Marxism is rooted in their different attitudes toward the idea of transcendence. There is a kind of transcendence in Marxism, i.e., the limits of the present possibilities of human nature are transcended by the expectation of a coming stage of justice. A kind of miracle in the transition from the present to the future stage of mankind is presupposed, at least implicitly. And it is obvious that Marxism draws a great deal of its psychological power from this element of transcendence and faith. But this transcendence is not the absolute transcendence of Christianity. It remains in time and space, in history and politics. It is dependent on immanent processes. It transcends the present time, but not time as such. It does not know eternity breaking into time, shaking, turning, and transforming the temporal. Marxism never reaches this transcendence. It is suspicious of it. Religion, because of its supratemporal nature, is considered to be an ideology, i.e., a system of ideas and symbols which have no basis in reality but which are invented for the sake of making the misery of the disinherited classes more bearable to them and, consequently, for the sake of breaking their revolutionary impulse by a mystical opiate. This is the theory of religion in original, as well as in late, Marxism. Obviously, this theory had to be criticized sharply by religious socialism. Religions of this type are distortions of what religion essentially is. This distortion is always possible and has often become a historical power in the sense in which Marxism describes it. But such a description does not fit prophetic religion and its fight against the demonic powers of history and of the personal life. And even the "sacramental" element in religion is not simply ideology. It is also the basis of the prophetic element because only in the power of the Holy that is present can the Holy that is future be expected and realized. In any case, religious socialism follows the Christian and all great religious messages in affirming the transcendent, invisible, and eternal character of the ultimate fulfillment of history and human life. History is fulfilled above history, not within history.

From this follow some basic differences between religious socialism and Marxism. Although Marx had fought against what he called "utopian socialism," he himself and, even more, his followers did not escape dangerous elements of utopianism themselves. They did not expect, of course, that the class situation could be changed by persuasion of the ruling classes, but they did expect that the economic process, in unity with the revolutionary impulse of the proletarian classes, would create the fulfillment of history—the classless society in which the main evils of the earlier mankind, of its "prehistory" as Marx called it, would be overcome. Religious socialism, on the contrary, has always maintained that the demonic forces of injustice, pride, and will-to-power never will be eradicated from the historical scene, although special manifestations of it, such as capitalism and nationalism, might be conquered. Therefore, religious socialism turned the anti-ideological criticism as much against itself and against all the other socialist and Marxist groups as against the enemies of socialism. The sharpest criticism of the socialist movement comes from religious socialism, while the lack of such a self-criticism, for instance, in the social-democratic parties, contributed much to their catastrophes. For the same reason, religious socialism, contrary to Marxism, upholds the importance of the personal life and its transformation for the revolutionary movement. The personal shortcomings of the leaders of the socialist groups and the lack of a profound education and discipline in the vanguards of the movement are due to the immanentist attitude of Marxism, to its overemphasis on the institutional, and to its lack of understanding of personal factors. For religious socialism the corrupted human situation has deeper roots than mere historical and sociological structures. It is rooted in the depth of the human heart. And in the same way the regeneration of mankind is not possible through institutional and political changes alone, but it also requires changes in the personal attitude of many people toward life. Therefore, for religious socialism the turning-point of history is not the rise of the proletariat but the appearance of a new meaning and power of life in the divine self-manifestation. These differences are of tremendous importance; but they do not prevent the inclusion of basic elements of the Marxist doctrines of history and man by prophetic Christianity.

III. Religious Socialism and Scientific Marxism

Religious socialists have accepted many of the scientific results of the Marxian analysis of society, especially of economics, because they have found them to be true. And they have maintained and still maintain Marxist theories, as far as they can do so on scientific grounds. They were and are, at the same time, hospitable to any criticism of Marxist ideas as soon as such criticism seems to be demanded by the progress of scientific knowledge. Religious socialism rejects any dogmatism with respect to the Marxist principles. It subjects them to the criteria of every scientific procedure and, beyond this, to the methodical suspicion that they might have become ideologies themselves. But religious socialism rejects dogmatic anti-Marxism as well as dogmatic Marxism and subjects the scientific attack on the Marxian doctrines not only to scientific criteria but also to the suspicion of being an ideological escape. Especially in the present situation, in which Marx is pushed more and more into the background, has the question of ideological anti-Marxism increased in importance.

There are, above all, some philosophical principles in Marxism which can and must be maintained by religious socialism as discoveries of lasting significance, provided that their corrupted forms are recognized as such and rejected. The demand for the unity of theory and practice or, in more recent terms, for "existential thinking" is a lasting insight that Marx has discovered in his fight against theoretical idealism and materialism. But the distortion of this insight into a skeptical relativism, according to which all thinking is only the expression of a special kind of being (psychological or sociological), must be considered not only as a corruption but also as the negation of existential thinking. In the same way it must be acknowledged by religious socialism that Marx is right in emphasizing material reproduction as the foundation of the whole historical process. But the distortion of this insight into a mechanistic economics or into a metaphysical materialism must be rejected. The economic sphere is itself a complex sphere, to which all other spheres essentially contribute, so that they cannot be derived from it, although they can never be separated from it. The dialectical method must be accepted as a method of describing the movements of life and history in their inner tensions, contrasts, and contradictions and in their trend toward more embracing unities. But the distortion of the dialectical method into a universal mechanism of calculable processes has nothing to do with reality and with the original meaning of this method. There are dialectical elements in all life and in every historical totality, namely, elements belonging to a given structure which drive beyond this structure. These structures can be described only in dialectical terms but not at all in terms of mechanical necessity. Existential thinking, historical materialism, and the dialectical method are achievements which should never be lost in religious socialism.

The same is true of several sociological and economic principles of scientific Marxism. Marx’s method of analyzing economic phenomena is a sociological method; it takes into consideration, in every moment, the human and social factors and denies the escapist attitude of formal economics which hides the fact that economic action is human action. The recognition of this situation is the second highly important methodological contribution of Marxism. On the basis of this method Marxism has given that analysis of the contradictions of capitalistic society, which, more than anything else, has destroyed the harmonistic beliefs of bourgeois liberalism. Marx himself and most of his followers confined their analysis to the contrast of "capital" and "labor." In the last decades it has become obvious that there are many more contradictory elements in the later stage of capitalism and that the revolutionary vanguard is no longer identical with the proletariat or advanced groups within it. It has become evident that the lower middle classes and bureaucracy in state and business will play a much greater role than Marx anticipated. But all this does not invalidate the main point in his analysis, i.e., the insight into the contradictions in the structure of capitalism. On the contrary, this insight has been deepened and confirmed by the catastrophes of the present world. Any neoliberal attempt to re-establish a harmonistic interpretation of capitalistic society must be rejected by religious socialism. It is an obvious fact that, partly under the influence of Marxism, the economy of free competition has been restricted to a great extent by the increasing power of labor; by frequent and radical interferences of the state in all countries; by the general trend toward state capitalism and the rise of a centralizing bureaucracy. But this transformation, although invalidating some of the anticipations of Marx, is, at the same time, the confirmation of his basic vision. Nobody can understand the character of the present world revolution who has not been prepared for it by the Marxian analysis of bourgeois society, its contradictions and its decisive trends. Every day one may experience the fact that people who are lacking in Marxian education, directly or indirectly, are utterly confused by the rise of communism and fascism and by the present world catastrophe. They simply cannot understand the trends in the former structure of society which, with dialectical (not mechanical) necessity, have brought about the present situation. They explain it as the result of bad accidents created by bad men. Religious socialism, with the tool of the Marxian analysis of society brought up to date, is able to give a meaning to the present world transformation.

IV. Marxism as a Lasting Principle and Religious Socialism

It is understandable that ideas can become an element of the general consciousness to such a degree that their original significance is forgotten. Much of what they had to say and which was surprising in the beginning becomes natural. Other parts become antiquated; and so the whole system of ideas seems to belong to the past. A theory of social processes which has partly changed the actual processes may seem to have become wrong just because it was right at the time it appeared. But there are other spiritual creations, the effects of which are not exhausted by their historical successes. They have an infinite, inexhaustible meaning because they represent a lasting type of spiritual possibility. Such types are prophetism, Platonism, and Protestantism. Such types also are religious socialism and Marxism. They return again and again in different shapes, based on their original, classical appearance. Therefore, we must go back to their classical form, and we must reshape them in the light of actual experience. But we cannot dismiss them as merely forms of past history. They would return against our will. We cannot discuss Marxism as a movement of the past as long as we espouse the prophetic spirit as religious socialists. Religious socialism, if it is to keep any meaning and power, must not become another ideological justification of the present democracies, nor must it become a progressive idealism and a system of autonomous harmony. The breakdown of these ideas has created the present situation. Religious socialism, in the spirit of prophetism and with the methods of Marxism, is able to understand and to transcend the world of today.

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