Marx: Mormonism and Theories of Religion IV

August 3, 2004 | 11 comments
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My titles were too long and hard to distinguish in the “Recent Comments” section, so I have switched the order around. The next theory in this series is that of Marx, just in time for the lifting of the ban on socialism! Like the others, Marx’s theory is reductionist. As a former Marxist myself, I find this particular kind of reductionism unpersuasive. However, this theory of religion became more than just a theory. For a good part of the 20th century a huge portion of the earth’s population subscribed to this theory. For this reason alone it derserves to be seriously considered.

Marx’s ideology is more extreme than the other thinkers featured. Ultimately, he does not offer a comprehensive critique of all religion, but rather the Christianity and Judaism of his day. He argues that religion is a tool for the oppressors to keep the oppressed content. Religion is fully determined by class interests. It is designed to make sure that society stays the same, that the interests of the elite are preserved. The belief in the afterlife teaches that in another world justice will be served, which allows injustice to be overlooked in this world. Also, the belief in God gives people a sense of comfort in the face of their difficulties which appeases them preventing them from demanding any changes. Thus, the famous quote: “Religion is the opiate of the masses.” Religion is escapism from the problems and injustices around us, which just happens to be quite convenient for those in power.

How does Marx’s analysis play out for Mormonism? Certainly his explanation is insufficient as an explanation of LDS belief, but does it offer any insight? Is early-Mormonism a proto-Marxist movement which aimed to eliminate economic hierarchies? What happened to that? In current Mormonism, do the conservative political bent, other-worldly focus, and anti-civil disobedience minded leadership serve to placate the masses and prop up the social and economic elites? In EQ, we recently had our annual lesson on managing finances and debt, and I couldn’t help but feel that there was a conspicuous lack of discussion about the abuses of corporations and the government which encourage bad financial choices by the lower classes. Can Marx and religion be successfully united, as in movements like liberation theology? Should Mormonism reflect these ideas in its array of theological options?

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11 Responses to Marx: Mormonism and Theories of Religion IV

  1. Rusty on August 3, 2004 at 2:57 pm

    Judging by your leanings I presume you’ve read Nibley’s Approaching Zion. One of the most interesting things I found while reading it is his analysis of the originator of money, Lucifer. Christ tells us we can have anything, just ask; Lucifer tells us we can have anything, we just need the money to pay for it (we can have anything in this world for money), later telling us he will buy up armies and priests, etc. Then he goes on to define what he calls Mahan Economics, shedding of blood for gain, originating with Master Mahan himself. The rest of the book is rife with commentary about needs vs. wants, asking the Lord vs. buying with money, and to live as if we were in Zion, where everything is the Lord’s and we are willing to give everything up to Him.

    My feeling is that Marx is much closer to what we (at least philosophically) believe than we generally give him credit for. The true Zion society seems much closer to Marx’s ideal than Adam Smith’s.

  2. clark on August 3, 2004 at 3:01 pm

    I’ve noticed that there are a lot of former Marxists who are Mormon. Perhaps I just notice them more because it seems so unusual to me. Perhaps there is something in our views of the Law of Consecration. Just curious.

    BTW – what about the new “reborn” postmodern forms of “marxism.” Any thoughts?

  3. Frank McIntyre on August 3, 2004 at 3:04 pm

    Thank goodness for a “conspicuous lack of discussion about the abuses of corporations and the government” in Elder’s Quorum!

    My EQ does a great job discussing the gospel, and I really enjoy the testimonies people share. But I doubt there are many EQ’s in this world that could really have a profitable and coherent discussion about how corporations and government decisions are tied to our own personal finance decisions.

    As for Marx, I think his theory could be very useful in understanding priestcraft (as that would seem to be what he and Korihor were describing). And we are not immune in this Church to the temptations of priestcraft. So perhaps it is a good reminder of how not to use religious belief.

    it is a very unfortunate type of reasoning that assumes that all beliefs are based on self-interest rather than being based on attempts to determine what is true. It is also very unfortunate how often that model fits the behavior of many people.

  4. clark on August 3, 2004 at 3:07 pm

    Rusty, isn’t the problem with Marx and most forms of Marxism that they buy into what Nibley calls Luciferan economics? There is a rather pessimistic view of humanity in Marxism which sees some semblance of force necessary to enable its utopia.

    Contrast this with more religious communitarian experiments and ideals where in it seems it is far more of a “bottom up” situation. They tend to have a perhaps overly naive but positive view of human nature and its potential to rule itself.

    That’s not to say we can’t see mixtures of the two. I seem to recall a Libertarian form of Marxism that was intriguing. Of course Marxism, from what I understand it, has all sorts of pseudo-science claims that undercut its ideology. But it is interesting.

  5. Frank McIntyre on August 3, 2004 at 3:09 pm

    Clark,

    The professor down the hall from me used to be a very smart Marxist. He had an epiphany about a decade ago and became a very smart libertarian.

  6. Nate Oman on August 3, 2004 at 4:30 pm

    One problem with viewing 19th century Mormon communitarianism as a kind of proto-Marxism is that it mistakenly reduces Marxism to communism (ie the collective ownership of property) and an egalatarian view of distributive justice. Marx, however, was unfailingly critical of what he saw as utopian socialists.

    The important thing to remember is that Marx’s chief ambition is to be “scientific.” For him communism is not aspirational. It is the end of the working out of the materialist dialectic in history. Society is inevitably moving toward communism, not because it is normative desireable or because it will be the choice of enlightened statesman or masses yearning to breath free. It is to be braught about by the emisiration of the capitalist prolatariat brought about by the wringing of the last ounce of surplus from their labor, which will mean that their behavior is ultimately to be dictated by the iron laws of physical want and extreme necessity.

    Hence, on the central conclusions of his theory, Marx was spectacularlly wrong. Furthermore, his materialism and his determinism seem at odds with many key ideas of Mormon theology.

  7. clark on August 3, 2004 at 6:07 pm

    Marx was wrong. And I think I can say that despite having fairly superficial knowledge of Marxism. However didn’t it buy into the sort of Jewish/Christian/Greek notion of progression? i.e. the idea that sincere seekers would get closer and closer to truth and therefore a better and better society? That doesn’t seem that uncommon and could be found in a lot of other 19th century political movements. But it can also be found in Mormonism, I think. Even if we have the notion of an apostasy and thus “de-evolution” it seems like our notion of Zion and so forth are tied to progression.

    Or am I wrong in that?

  8. Nate Oman on August 3, 2004 at 6:19 pm

    Clark: I think that Marx would have been quite scornful of the idea that society was made better by truth seeking and progression. It seems to me that the whole point of his theory was to offer a deterministic and mechanistic view of the world. Think Hegel, but with the material forces of history standing in for the World Spirit.

    I freely admitt, however, thay my knowledge of Marx is also quite superficial.

  9. john fowles on August 3, 2004 at 7:38 pm

    Nate, I agree with you and would add that any Mormons with such leanings are utopian socialists and not Marxists. It is highly likely that none of them have read Marx at all, much less understand the implications of his theories. Rather, they just think it would be nice if income were distributed more evenly, more equality existed in the world, and there were less suffering generally. They think that since they value these things, they must be Marxists, improperly understood, when what they really are is Socialists with a capital S.

    Thus, Marx can drop from the picture completely in discussing such Latter-day Saints with those leanings and we can analyze their beliefs based on utopian socialism. The interesting thing about socialism is that it seems like a counterfeit of the united order; that is, such principles are desirable in and of themselves, but are corrupted in socialism through its humanistic radicalism. With God out of the picture, or rather with the correct moral impetus to participate in United-Order type communalism or communitarianism out of the picture, a state-imposed redistribution is both unjust and totalitarian. It very closely resembles Satan’s plan, which itself is a counterfeit of God’s plan.

  10. Richard Allen on August 25, 2004 at 9:52 pm

    I am a student at BYU in archaeology, the study of human material culture. Discounting much of the dialectics, Marx has the potential to give us a better understanding of the past and about cultural relations which are often economically motivated. Marx was right about religion. It is the opiate of the masses. I don’t discount the idea that many people act altruisticly, but when talking about systems and groups of people they act for their own benefit and try to maintain the social order. Other belief systems can be categorized as priestcrafts. I’m fascinated by this issue and anyone can email me back.

  11. Richard Allen on August 25, 2004 at 9:54 pm

    I am a student at BYU in archaeology, the study of human material culture. Discounting much of the dialectics, Marx has the potential to give us a better understanding of the past and about cultural relations which are often economically motivated. Marx was right about religion. It is the opiate of the masses. I don’t discount the idea that many people act altruisticly, but when talking about systems and groups of people they act for their own benefit and try to maintain the social order. Other belief systems can be categorized as priestcrafts. I’m fascinated by this issue and anyone can email me back.