Whatever the failings of the system of political economy that bears his name, in calling religion “the opiate of the masses,” Karl Marx has endeared himself to a century of religious skeptics. Religion, Marx tells us, is a means used by the upper classes to keep down the proletariat. And in rejecting his own religious background in the quest for a reason-based ethos, he is the prototypical secular humanist.
Even a cursory study of Marx’s writings on the topic reveals his incomplete understanding of its social functions. This is unsurprising: Marx was a political economist, not a theologian or a sociologist. In this, he saw religion as the Second Estate, a political and economic force rather than a moral one.
He was also cynically disingenuous, if not hypocritical, in his condemnation of religion. Marx’s writings, The Communist Manifesto in particular, do not so much eliminate religion as substitute a political credo and doctrine for established faiths. This paleo-humanist Cult of the Proletariat took on the political and economic functions of religion and was no less (and I would argue even more) focused on anesthetizing the masses than even the most organized of faiths.
Yet even if we ascribe to Mr. Marx the purest of motives, we must concede that at best he failed to understand the inherent weakness of a rationalist ethos once it needed to guide the day-to-day lives of the proletariat. He seemed to reject out-of-hand the need for a moral code, much less one that was more than a mere human construct. As a secular humanist Marx believed – overoptimistically, as it turned out, that man is a moral beast, in need of no code to guide his way.
History and human nature beg to differ.
Whether Marx was cynical or hopeful in rejecting the importance of a moral ethos, that rejection has wrought confusion and havoc among the Chinese populace. Having cast off Confucianism in 1911, religion in 1949, and Marxism/Leninism/Maoism with Deng’s Southern Trip in 1992, the Chinese people seem to have been left with two laws uttered by Deng: “to get rich is glorious,” and “it matters not whether the cat black or white is as long as it catches mice.”
The result for China has been the emergence of an Amoral Oligarchy, a nation where self-interest prevails and where material success comes upon the rejection of any residual behavioral strictures. For many of those who have attained the pinnacle of success, that is enough.
Yet there is a small but growing number of prosperous Chinese who are dissatisfied. They have their jobs, their cars, their houses, their families, food in their bellies, liquor in the cabinet, mistresses in town, and they ask “is that all there is?”
These people are particularly vulnerable to quack religions and cults of the variety that invite demagogues and exploitation. And therein lies danger.
What is unclear is whether China’s leaders, well acquainted as they are with the failings of Marxist economics, are similarly attuned to the failure of Marxist morality. Hu Jintao’s call for a Harmonious Society does not seem to ask whether Chinese are good or evil: it asks them only to “get along.”
Over the next ten years, there will inevitably be efforts to attack the symptoms of moral decay: prosecuting the corrupt, enhancing law enforcement, and propaganda campaigns that call for a more genteel society. The best indicator of whether China’s leaders comprehend the cause of the problem will be the actions and leadership of the State Administration for Religious Affairs in the wake of Xi Jinping‘s ascent to the Presidency.
For what must precede a truly Harmonious Society is a Moral Society, wherein the first line of behavioral enforcement – the individual – successfully takes from the police the greater burden over personal behavior. As Marx failed to learn, states must be prepared to cleave the spiritual life of the nation from its political or economic life. The answer is either a return to faith or the introduction of a supra-human code of behavior that can guide both man and state.