The German economist/philosopher Karl Marx claimed to be the voice of the working class. He wrote endless, confusing diatribes about how capitalism alienates workers from themselves. He ranted about how capitalism stole from the working class. For Marx capitalism was oppressive, abusive, manipulative and evil. However, historian Paul Johnson writes, “he never succeeded in unearthing one [worker] who was paid literally no wages at all. Yet, such a worker did exist, in his own household.” She was a servant named Elanor, whom Marx impregnated, denied, discarded, and, of course, never paid a single dime. It turns out that even the worst capitalists weren’t so bad as the first socialist.
This story, though almost comically ironic, is more haunting than anything else. Karl Marx, whose philosophy turned the world upside down, was an utterly despicable man. He left lovers, family members and friends in destitute poverty. He leached money from the rich capitalists he criticized and never paid back his debts. He was a racist, anti-semite, who saw women more like servants than humans. He was a violent dictator in his own party; he ran out anyone who disagreed with him. Ironically, the principle dissenters tended to be the workers who Marx claimed to represent. Yet, the few workers he actually met, he ran out, despised and terrorized.
All things considered, we may ask, how could so many people then (and now!) fall into the trap of believing the philosophy written by a man who lived his life so poorly. Well, some might respond, his life was disgusting, but what does that have to do with the quality of his ideas? Does someone need to live a good life to have good ideas?
The answer is yes, someone’s life is connected to their philosophy. Here’s why: our lives are imprinted into our philosophy. For example, Karl Marx’s debt, led him to hate Jews (who were the bankers of the time), which therefore led him to hate to private property. He then came up with philosophical self-justification, for why he did not need to pay back his debts, and why people like the private-property owning Jews were evil.
Let me go a step deeper. Karl Marx was a violent, totalitarian leader, who refused to actually listen to, or spend time with the working class. This violence, totalitarianism, and classism seeped into his philosophy so profoundly that the men in the following century, who actual put Marx’s philosophy to practice (Mao, Lenin, Stalin), ended up looking just like Marx: they were violent, totalitarian, classicists.
Isn’t it strange how Marx’s philosophy is not merely a set of ideas – it’s actually himself.
Of course, all of this is one of those grave historical ironies that we easily look back on with self-gratifying judgmentalism. But the truth is, that we’re all sinners like Marx, and none of our lives would stand up to the scrutiny of history’s searching eyes.
The truth is that we need someone who not only gives us a way to live, but lived in a way worth living. We need someone to live a perfect life, and then teach us how to live like he did. Jesus Christ is that person. He lived the perfect life that we ought to live, and died the death we ought to die.
We’re tempted to say that Marx never paid his servant, Elanor, because he was inconsistent with his philosophy. But he actually failed to pay her because he was consistent with his philosophy. In communist countries it was always the poorest, most marginalized people who suffered the most – and the same was true in Marx’s house. Marx’s life cannot be separated from his philosophy – his philosophy is a confused ideology, informed by a poorly lived life and following it makes us as poor as him.
While Marx was selfish, self-interested, and self-promoting (like all of us), Christ was selfless and self-sacrificing. He came with the good news that though we cannot save ourselves, God can and he has through Christ’s death. ‘Would you be like me?’, Jesus asks, ‘then take up your cross.’ We must die to ourselves by confessing our evil, and looking to God for our salvation. Then we will not only live with Christ, but like Christ.
*I am indebted to Paul Johnson’s book, Intellectuals, for the biographical information in this post.