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[The following review, originally published in Weekly Worker 469, Thursday, February 27, 2003, is archived here with the kind permission of the author, Liam O'Ruairc, who retains the copyright and who notes that he is responsible for neither the title nor the last paragraph.]

Fundamentally Irreconcilable


Review of Andrew Collier, Christianity and Marxism: A Philosophical Contribution to Their Reconciliation (London and New York: Routledge, 2001). 149 pages.

This book aims to reconcile Marxism and christianity at the philosophical level by attempting to ease the central areas of tension between them. Andrew Collier wants "to make Lenin and Althusser meet Augustine and Luther!" (p1).

The author is certainly not attempting to bring about some eclectic marriage of the two theories: he is more concerned about resolving the conflicts between them. The book is small (less than 150 pages) and, in spite of being obscure by moments, is clear and the arguments well structured. Collier's project is ambitious and he has done a good job.

He begins by presenting the respective positions of Marxism and christianity. His exposition of Marxism in a few pages is excellent. However, his presentation of christianity is weaker because, while he engages in a prolonged discussion of the meaning of the fall, he is extremely brief about the christian response to it and neglects the doctrine of the atonement (pp41-42). For Collier, there are good grounds to hold both beliefs. Unfortunately, the author does not explain to Marxists what good grounds there are to believe in christianity. However, he is currently working on a book defending the rationality of faith (p136). But Marxism and christianity apparently contradict each other. On what theoretical and practical issues are they opposed?

The first area of tension is an opposition between a natural and a supernatural causal explanation of things. In its analysis of natural and social processes, Marxism will give primacy to material factors, whereas christianity has room for the supernatural. But, according to Collier, christianity can accept materialism as being "regionally true - true of fallen nature": "God is spirit and preceded and made matter: in that sense materialism is false; but everything in the world considered aside from its relation to its creator, is as if materialism is true. The christian can be a materialist about the fallen world and hence about history - a historical materialist" (p48).

If this explanation might satisfy a christian, a Marxist will find the idea of a god that preceded and made matter problematical. This brings the second area of tension: Marxism is atheist, while god is at the core of the christian belief. Collier admits that this disagreement between Marx and the christians "cannot of course be explained away" (p125). But he also adds that Marx did not regard atheism as either integral to his main theoretical contribution, or as essential to membership of the workers' movement. Marx and Engels also opposed any religious persecution (pp55, 67-68).

More importantly, Collier thinks that Marx's critique of religion has perhaps more in common with the religious critique of idolatry (from the Hebrew prophets to the Ranters and beyond) than with liberal secularism. Liberal secularism taken to the extreme implies that nothing is sacred - everything is saleable; the criticism of religion ends up in Mammon worship. This is why it is better to place Marx within the tradition of "iconoclasm without secularism" (p71). Marxism can learn from christianity's critique of idolatry and christianity can learn from Marxism's critique of fetishism.

But then what of the critique of religion as the "opium of the people"? Marx's claim here is a causal one: christianity is caused by the feeling of oppression. His implied criticism here is that, since the cause of the belief is not a good ground for believing it, it is unfounded. But, argues Collier, "even if true, Marx's claim is not evidence for the falsehood of christianity; we might believe it for bad reasons, yet it might be true, and there might be other good reasons for believing it of which we are unaware" (p90). If Collier's point makes sense, he should have perhaps also developed what those good reasons are. But surprisingly, the author does not refer to all the texts where Marx and Engels (and all subsequent Marxists) analysed religion in positive terms, and not as the "opium of the people". It would have provided irrefutable evidence that the Marxist attitude to religion is not simply negative and critical.

The rest of Collier's book deals with more practical issues. He refutes the idea that christianity is above all concerned by outer-worldly things; like Marxism, it is centrally concerned about this world. And far from being ascetic and preaching resignation, it teaches that diseases, death, poverty and other evils are enemies to be conquered. But there seems to be a conflict of morality between Marxism and christianity. Christianity says that one should love enemies, give back good for evil, turn the right cheek, and so on; while Marxism advocates social revolution and physical force if necessary. It is the conflict between the ethics of revolution and the ethics of the Sermon on the Mount.

Collier insists that one should place the biblical texts in the historical context in which they were written. In New Testament times, a successful social revolution was impossible and there were no rational alternatives to submission to the authorities (p108). This helps to understand why ideas of obedience were so central to New Testament political philosophy. The author shows that there is an ethical conflict internal to christianity between the fact that it must bring peace and reconciliation at the forefront, but at the same time cannot renounce violence entirely because it teaches the doctrine of negative responsibility - ie, to abstain from saving life is also to kill (pp118-119). Collier does not solve this dilemma: it will be left to christians to learn how to balance both these ethical imperatives in practice.

Finally, there remains the following problem: for Marxism, the evils afflicting our world are social in nature, and thus can be removed by a social revolution; whereas for christianity evil is a product of the fall and cannot be abolished through human actions. But Collier reminds us, quoting Engels, that, although major social problems would be solved under socialism, a perfect society only exists in the imagination. Because christianity warns against over-optimism in reducing evil, Collier sees it allied to the hard-core materialist wing of Marxism (p47).

If the book is above all concerned about solving the areas of conflict between Marxism and christianity, Andrew Collier also refers - perhaps too briefly - to what can unite them. Both could be allies against what the author calls "neo-paganism" (ideologies such as fascism or post-modernism) and liberalism. However, Collier's argument would have been much stronger had he examined in greater depth what Marxism and christianity share in common.

The book quite successfully addresses the main objections raised by christians against Marxism, and it is its principal strength. It goes without saying that Andrew Collier is sympathetic to both Marxism and christianity. However, christians - unless they come from radical traditions such as liberation theology - will be looking for more reasons before being convinced of the validity and relevance of Marxism. Similarly, there is little in the book that will convince Marxists of the validity of christian beliefs.

In spite of this, Collier has to be congratulated for underlining the idea that Marxism and christianity are fundamentally irreconcilable.

Copyright © 2003 Liam O'Ruairc

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