Karl Marx once called religion the opium of the people—an imaginary coping mechanism that makes suffering in this world more bearable. His vision was a secular, atheistic one. But my guest today argues Marx’s vision was still intensely spiritual. In fact, he says Marx hijacked key themes from Christianity to create a false religion. Theology professor Bruce Ashford joins me in today’s episode.

We also cover these stories:

  • Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., undergoes heart surgery after chest discomfort.
  • Secretary of State Mike Pompeo calls for religious freedom around the world at Vatican symposium.
  • Students and parents plan to appeal after a federal judge sides with Harvard University in their discrimination suit.

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Daniel Davis: I’m joined now in the studio by Dr. Bruce Ashford. He is the dean of faculty and provost at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary down in North Carolina, where he also serves as a professor of theology and culture. He also blogs at “Christianity for the Common Good.” And as a note of personal disclosure, he is a professor of mine. I’m a part-time student at Southeastern.

Bruce, thanks for swinging by the studio.

Bruce Ashford: Yeah, it’s great to be on the podcast today. Thank you.

Davis: Bruce, you’re an interesting blogger and writer because on the one hand, you’re kind of like waist-deep in historical theology and philosophy and writing the journal articles and all of that. But you’re also writing contemporary books for your audience, which is largely Christian, and you’re also blogging about contemporary political issues.

And one of those issues that’s come up already is that socialism is a recurring theme, with [Rep.] Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and [Sen.] Bernie Sanders and others bringing that back to the fore.

You’ve written about not just socialism, but the Marxist underpinnings of it. You write about how Marxism as an ideology is actually a false religion. And I think that’s an interesting angle.

I think a lot of folks, even conservatives, think of Marxism as just a set of bad ideas, but you’re saying it’s actually false religion and even idolatry. Why do you frame it that way?

Ashford: Yeah. And so you know, I’m not the first person to bring this up. The great French philosopher Raymond Aron, who’s a contemporary of [Jean-Paul] Sartre, explored this in a book that he wrote called “The Opium of the Intellectuals,” which is a play off of Marx’s “opium of the masses.”

He argued that structurally and existentially, Marxism functions more like a religion than just kind of a mirror ideology that’s been picked up on by some contemporary political scientists and philosophers like David Koyzis and Peter Kreeft.

The critique is really Augustinian, and Augustine argued that any time you take some aspect of the natural order and elevate it to a level of ultimacy, absolutize it, you’ve got yourself an idol or a false religion. And I think Marx did that with material equality.

What happens is when you take any one aspect of reality and you elevate it that high, you absolutize it, it becomes a cudgel with which you beat down other good aspects of reality. And we can talk about this later, but that’s exactly what Marxism has done, is taken this drive for material equality and beat down other good aspects of reality. It induces poverty and decreases liberty.

Davis: Lay out for us the basic Marxist paradigm. We hear the word so often, but what actually is the worldview of Marxism?

Ashford: We’ll start with his philosophy of history. He was an economic determinist, or something very close to a determinist, that believed the logic of human history can be traced by tracing economic struggles, class struggles.

So he divided the world into five eras and he argued that in each of these eras, you can see that human beings are essentially laborers and that their labor conditions determine who they are and determine the happiness of their life.

First is Asiatic, the hunter-gatherer stage, and this is where human beings were at the mercy of nature. The second era is the ancient era, and this is the slave master era where the slave is oppressed by the master. Then on the heels of that, you’ve got in the medieval era, the feudal system, and this is sort of the lord-peasant era and it’s a little bit better than the ancient era.

Marx argued that owners began to realize the problem with slavery is that your property can get sick or die, and your property usually wants to run away.

In the lord-peasant era, the peasants at least had some ownership of what they did. They got to keep their crops and so forth. They were less likely to run away.

Then we have capitalism, which is the owner-worker relationship, where he argued that the wealthy, the owners oppressed the workers. And he lived in an era of serious crony capitalism, the industrial era where there were immoral market agents who were working young children and adults 16 hours a day, things that we would never agree with—unhealthy forms of the free market. And he just assumed that that’s what capitalism was and he was wrong.

Then finally, the fifth era that he’s pushing toward is he believed that definitely and inevitably, the working class would disappear. They’d be replaced by machines and that they would rebel and that a few wealthy people would help them to overthrow the wealthy class, and that there would be a socialist utopia.

Eventually, and this is just laughable, he believed that under the Marxist paradigm, the state would wither away. And we’ve seen something like the opposite of that happen every time Marx’s thought has been instantiated in actual society.

Davis: That’s interesting, isn’t it?

Ashford: If you take Marx’s benchmark, which is history, Marxism fails under that benchmark in the most utterly devastating way, repeatedly. So that’s his philosophy of history.

His anthropology, this is important—he believed that human beings are essentially laborers. That’s who we are. It determines who we are. And because he was a determinist and because he believed that people’s way of thinking was determined by their economic class, he believed that people couldn’t really be reasoned with.

The problem with that, and we see this in contemporary society, [is] people take Marx’s thought and translate it to gender, sex, and race theory. The problem is that if people can’t be reasoned with, the only thing that’s left is coercion. They can be bullied—and we see in Marxist societies, imprisoned, assassinated. That’s his anthropology. So that’s a brief summary of his thought.

Davis: That’s interesting. It’s really evocative of the identity politics—you’re in this group but you’re in that group. And you’ve got certain interests and that’s all you are and you can’t rise above that. You can’t think beyond that.

It makes you wonder about Marx himself. Did he see himself as somehow above all of these people and able to get to the truth?

Ashford: That’s a great critique … and that’s another one of the many ironies that you’ve got.

Davis: Because wasn’t he a traitor to his own class? He was kind of raised in what he would call the bourgeois, the wealthy.

Ashford: Yeah. His father was a lawyer and he was sent to Berlin and didn’t have to pay for any of it. [He was at the] University of Berlin studying under the greatest minds.

Just last week I spoke at a College Republicans kickoff at a university in North Carolina and had a bunch of progressive activists show up and their activism, it was a Marxist form of activism. They treated me as a worthless piece of crap who could not be reasoned with and so they used kind of verbal forms of intimidation to try to bully me.

I’m not easily bullied, but I tried to engage them in good faith and about half of them ended up responding to me as a human being, but the other half didn’t. They treated me under Marx’s view. I was determined by my gender, sex, race, and economic class, and I’m somebody to be bullied rather than talked with.

It’s a problem that so many of our college students are being taught that sort of the Alinsky method and kind of the Marxist view of one’s social and political opponents.

Davis: That’s sad to hear. Unfortunately, [it’s] more and more common.

Before we get too much into that, though, I want to ask you about Marxism as an antithesis to Christianity. You write about this in your blogs and how Marx was putting forward an alternative to Christianity, but in many ways actually mirrored it. Talk about that.

Ashford: Marx converted to Christianity or early on, he was Jewish and converted to Christianity briefly. [He] even wrote some relatively beautiful prose about Christianity before he became an atheist. And when he became an atheist, he began writing his theory, you can tell it’s almost as if he had the Bible at his elbow. So for every major Christian doctrine, he built a Marxist doctrine that was the inverse or the converse of it.

For example, in Marxism, you’ve got a god and the god is material equality. You’ve got an evil, and the foremost evil is material inequality and the class struggle that exists because of that. Then you have a salvation. Salvation is Marxist ideology and revolution. And if I can stop there for just a minute, Marxist revolution is not political revolution.

Political revolution is something limited. That’s when you replace one political arrangement with another. But the socialists, most of them, to the extent that they’re like Marx, don’t want merely a political revolution. They want a social revolution, which is an entire upending, an overthrow of the social order. And that doesn’t go well. That never goes well.

When you clear the decks and try to start over again, there’s no one person or no group of people as brilliant enough and persuasive enough to overturn an entire social order and for it to go well. And that’s what Marx wants to do with the salvation he provides.

You’ve got Marx’s version of church and that will be pockets of classless people in the midst of the capitalist world.

When I was in Russia, I lived in Russia right after the fall of the Soviet Union, and the Russians told me that they would have in their communist youth group meetings … a little Bible—

Davis: They had communist youth group?

Ashford: Yeah. Their youth group meetings. And they had a little green book that looked just like a Bible called “The Atheist Table” and they sang songs about how God doesn’t exist and how Jesus wasn’t God. It’s very similar.

Davis: Do they have any atheist altar calls or something?

Ashford: Yeah, I don’t know.

Davis: Baptism?

Ashford: Yeah, catechisms and so forth. The priesthood in Marx’s system is the Communist Party, and now here’s an important one, the ethic. So the Christian ethic is a principled ethic. There are certain things that are wrong in and of themselves and you never do them, ever.

Davis: Like murder, stealing, rape.

Ashford: Rape, murder, yeah. But the Marxist ethic is utilitarian and under the Marxist system, the good is whatever helps achieve the socialist utopia. The bad is whatever hinders it. And that’s why Marxist societies have been so easily able to justify assassinations.

You had 800,000 executions in the first three decades of communism in Russia and it’s why they could imprison in the Gulag, I think, 1.7 million people in the first three decades in the Soviet Union. And those are the Soviet numbers. Those aren’t American numbers. That’s a fact.

So you’ve got a utilitarian ethic that ends up undermining human dignity. You have an end times. Christians talk about … We believe that Christ will return one day, set the world to rights, install the one-world government, the one-party system and justice will roll down like the waters. Well, Marx said his version of that and that is that once his revolution had happened, there would be such material abundance.

That’s funny, isn’t it? There’d be so much material abundance, people would be so happy, they’d be frolicking, and in the midst of abundance the state would wither away. And we know, of course, that the opposite happens in the Marxist system.

The state doesn’t wither away, it becomes like a giant octopus that swells to enormous proportions and reaches its tentacles into every sector of society in every sphere of culture.

And then finally, the Christian view of history is that history is linear. It’s proceeding toward something that would be Christ’s return. And that history is not a closed system, that there’s something that transcends us as a transcendent moral framework and there’s a God who underpins that. But for Marx, history is a closed system and the meaning of life is found within history, not without.

So that’s a summary of the way that Marxism functions as a false religion. And we can, if you want to in a little while, we can talk about what happens when you build an ideology, the functions of false religion.

Davis: Well, let’s do that.

Ashford: OK.

Davis: You talked about living in the post-Soviet world in Russia. You saw, I assume, the disastrous consequences of a whole half-century of communism. But talk about how that came about and why building a system on what you call an idol is what was really problematic.

Ashford: I was born in the ’70s, all right? So I’m an old guy and I remember—

Davis: Gen X.

Ashford: Exactly.

Davis: The last good generation, as they say.

Ashford: I hope so. I hope we’re a good generation. But when I was a kid … I remember watching Ronald Reagan on television talking about the evils of communist society. And I remember my parents received a bulletin four times a year from Voice of the Martyrs, and it would have photographs of Russian pastors and Christians who had been put in the Gulag in the concentration camps and it would tell their story and they almost always died of starvation within a few months or they were assassinated or killed, executed.

It got my imagination going. So, in the ’90s, I moved to a Central Asian corner of Russia and lived there for awhile. And I saw and talked to the people who lived under that regime. And it was absolutely devastating.

So here’s how we put it: When you take an aspect of the natural world and elevate it to the level of a god and make it a god, it’s always going to go badly. It’s going to distort and warp reality. It’s going to beat down other good aspects of reality.

So let’s talk about how that happened. And we’ll just use Russia as our examples, or the communists, the Soviet Union. We could do the same thing with the People’s Republic of China. And if it’s called the People’s Republic, it’s probably not the people’s republic. We do the same thing with Cuba.

Davis: Venezuela, today.

Ashford: Yeah, Venezuela. But we’ll focus on the Soviet Union. I know those numbers the best.

Marxism fails by its own benchmark, which is history. So, historically, the abolition of private property has not led to liberation. It’s led to oppression. Think about it. If you don’t have private property, you only have one thing left, which is your own soul, right? Your own inner freedom, freedom of conscience. And that’s something that nobody can ever take away. But other than that, you have nothing.

If you don’t have private property, the government can take absolutely everything away from you. They’ve got you in an iron grip. You can’t even go home. You can’t even go home to your house and be with your family, because you don’t even have that.

Historically, … the state has not withered away. It’s actually become enormous and oppressive. So to give some numbers in the USSR—the Communist Party used systematic terror, because remember, you can’t reason with people, right? People are historically determined.

If somebody is an opponent of the government and they can’t be reasoned with, and if you have utilitarian ethic, then the good thing to do is to get rid of those people.

Just from 1921 to 1953, 1.7 million Soviet citizens died in the Gulag, 800,000 were executed, 400,000 died from forced resettlement and the starvation and so forth that occurred from that kind of a resettlement.

Anthropology, Marx did believe in human dignity, not in the same way that I do, but his system undermined human dignity. …

For those of you listening, you really ought to read Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s “The Gulag Archipelago.” There’s an abridged edition. That’s a very good edition. And in that, he talked about how the Soviet leaders viewed the Soviet citizens as swarming lice, that they didn’t have any inherent value or dignity. They only had instrumental value. And if you were for the revolution, they were good with you. If you are against the revolution, you could be eliminated.

Human beings also were essentially robots or animals in this theory, and I think that’s a negative. I think another problem with Marxism, and we see this in contemporary forms of Marxism, is that it misunderstands human nature and … it misunderstands evil and it locates evil either exclusively or primarily in systems.

Christianity doesn’t do that. Christianity recognizes that evil is, on the one hand, located in the human heart and rooted in the human heart, and that’s why we believe in bringing justice to individuals who have flouted the law. We do believe in what people call today systemic evil, that institutions, if you have enough individuals who are unjust, then their sin coalesces at the social level to warp institutions. But if you get rid of systemic injustice, you don’t get rid of evil.

The problem with Marxists is that they aim almost exclusively at institutions and don’t realize that you can get rid of the institutions and evil will still be there, rooted in the human heart.

A couple of other negative consequences is that a Marxist historic determinism led to moral relativism. We’ve touched on that a little bit, but that’s part of the corruption of society in the Soviet era, is moral relativism from stem to stern.

Then the last thing is … when I hear somebody like AOC or some of the socialists today talking about the 1%, sometimes I’ll laugh, sometimes I get upset about it because it’s so false.

We look at what Marx did in the USSR. The Communist Party, the KGB bosses were enormously wealthy and everyone else in the country was poor. Everyone else was poor. There wasn’t a 1%, there was a 1000th of 1% who was enormously wealthy and everybody else was poor. So if you’d like to help the U.S., let’s embrace a reality-based politic like you’ve got here at [The Heritage Foundation]. Socialism is not a reality-based politic. It’s grand utopian promises that can’t be backed up.

Davis: Given all that history you just laid out, economic Marxism has been devastating for country after country after country. Why do you think [socialism is] making this resurgence in American politics if it’s got such a bad track record? Is it just because we’re not educated or do you think there’s something more?

Ashford: Good question. I’ll give it my best shot at answering it. I think on the one hand, with younger Americans—millennials and Generation Z—there is a lack of awareness, historical awareness. They didn’t grow up exposed to the utter horrors of the Soviet Union, People’s Republic of China, the atrocities in Cuba. There’s not a kind of existential and historical awareness, so that’s part of it. But you’ve got older people, you’ve got Bernie, you know, crazy Bernie up there …

Davis: Who spent his honeymoon in the Soviet Union.

Ashford: And that woman stayed with him. And I don’t understand that, but I think people are drawn to utopia. I think we all are. We want, especially idealistic people, people are idealistic and are drawn to utopia. And there’s nothing wrong with that in and of itself, but we can’t usher into utopia. And the reason is, their evil is rooted in the human heart, not in systems.

So no amount of clearing the deck socially and starting over with new institutions will ever bring that utopia. So we’re going to have to settle for something more realistic. And for me, I think the realistic thing is to have as minimal of a government as possible. Government’s going to have to expand a little bit sometimes and step in and fix some things. But the government should set the conditions where human beings can flourish.

When there’s immoral market agents, then we can step in and correct those immoral market agents. But we can’t do this sort of grand utopian revolutionary politics, it’s just not going to work out well.

Davis: Marxism, in its economic form, as you were talking about, is clearly devastating and a lot of folks on the left have said, “Yeah, maybe that doesn’t work. We’ll adopt like a softer capitalism, but we’re going to apply Marxism in all these other areas, in sex, gender, race.”

Talk about that transition and how Marxism lives on even in countries that are capitalist.

Ashford: If you’d asked me 20 years ago, 15 years ago even, I would’ve said, “Marxism is dead. It is absolutely dead. It will never make a comeback.” But it has made a comeback. And you’re right, not just in the economic dimension.

Marx’s historic determinism has been taken and applied not just to economics, but to gender, race, and sex. You as a person, Daniel, are a white male, middle class, upper-middle class, I don’t know what you are, but you’re determined—

Davis: Definitely lower-middle class.

Ashford: … You’re determined by that and you’re not a person who can be reasoned with. Right? You are a person who should be shouted down, mocked, insulted, kind of intimidated, bullied a little bit.

Davis: Just incapable of an original thought.

Ashford: Yeah, that’s right. So you have identity politics based on identities. And I do think that identity politics defined as seeking the good of your own tribe at the expense of the common good is the death of democracy. It is a way to burn down the house that our Founding Fathers built.

So we want to promote a view where people are independent agents, that we’re not completely independent, we’re interdependent on other people, but we are able to think freely.

People can change their way of thinking like Marx did—[he] went from being a Jew to a Christian to an atheist, right? He changed his thought. He wasn’t so determined historically. And we want to treat other people with that kind of respect. I want to ascribe human dignity to them, and reason with them or persuade them instead of engaging in coercive forms of activism.

Davis: When you’re engaging with people, say they’re college students or someone else who thinks that you’re just part of your identity group and not to be reasoned with, to be shunned, are you ever able to succeed in breaking through to them?

I know you mentioned some college students earlier where you did, but how do you do that and how do you meet them at a mental level where you can actually have a conversation so that they’re not so tied to their ideology that they keep shunning you?

Ashford: It’s a great question. I started as an opinion writer about four years ago and mostly for Fox, but I’ve written some for The Daily Signal, The Daily Caller. When I would link to those articles on my Facebook author page, I would get all sorts of comments, as you can imagine, from activists.

I started an experiment then that I’ve continued, not just electronically, but sort of in-person engagement with progressive activists. And the good thing is that these people are human, they’re human. And that means that there’s a good chance that if you enter into a good faith conversation with them, they’re going to respond decently.

On average I would say about half of the folks do, if you work at it, end up responding decently and you have a good conversation … You don’t usually come away agreeing. You’re not going to win them over on the spot. But you come away with it having been a good engagement. And the other half of the folks I think on average have been so … so overwhelmed by ideology that their humanness doesn’t come out. But I think we need to be careful not to respond in kind.

Davis: Right, because I would imagine … it is easy for some on the right to also fall into that identity politics mindset where it’s like, “OK, you’re just going to hate me for who I am, then I’m just going to hate you for who you are.”

Ashford: Yeah. It’s a temptation. I’ve fallen into that trap plenty of times in my life. When you’re being kind of mocked and insulted and treated like a worthless piece of trash, you want to give it back to them. And I think it is OK to sometimes poke some fun at it or to push back really hard.

But we’ve got to remember not to respond in kind. And if we can do that, I think we’ll be able to win the day.

Davis: Well, Bruce, this is a fascinating discussion. I hope our listeners have enjoyed it. I understand you have some books on the market. What should our listeners check out on Amazon?

Ashford: If you’re out there and you’d like some reading, I’ve got a couple books recently you might like. I published a book called “One Nation Under God: A Christian Hope for American Politics,” it is a gift-size book, very small.

And then I published one recently called “Letters to an American Christian.” It was a fun book. I wrote it as a series of hypothetical letters, 27 brief letters to a hypothetical college student at an elite university, encouraging him not to be seduced by his secular progressive professors.

It’s a fun read. It’s kind of a book meant to be read at the beach or in an easy chair, if you’d like. It addresses all the hot-button issues, every hot and button issue that I can imagine that book addresses. So if you’d like to read it or buy one for a friend of yours who’s headed to college or who wants to think through political issues, I think that would be one that’s easy to read and gives some good talking points.

Davis: Fantastic. Bruce, thanks for your time today.

Ashford: Thanks. It’s been great to be on the show with you.