Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels provide a helpful case study in the inherent limitations of government. Their landmark publication, The Communist Manifesto (hereafter, TCM), was first printed in 1848, and offered to some the hope they had been desperately seeking. Before asserting the solution, though, the TCM delineated with specificity what its authors believed to be the root problem. All of societal history is ongoing class struggle, with oppressor and oppressed standing against one another. This has taken place throughout four epochs of world history, all representing the struggle between oppressor and oppressed: (1) primitive and communal, (2) slave, (3) feudal, and (4) capitalist. TCM made the case for how a fifth era, a socialist and communist epoch, could right the wrongs of societal history. At the time of TCM’s writing, the world advanced deep into the fourth (capitalist) epoch, an era in which the ills dominating the previous ages were coming to a climax. It was the right time, thought Marx and Engels, for the working class of the world (the proletariat, the oppressed) to unite and cast of the shackles of the ruling class (the bourgeoisie, the oppressors). The goal was the “formation of the proletariat into a class, overthrow of the bourgeois supremacy, conquest of political power by the proletariat.”[1]

Viewing all of history in economic terms, TCM diagnosed the problem as economic, and appropriately to the diagnosis, proposed an economic solution – the economic solution that would usher in the final epoch of societal history. This solution was, in the minds of its formulators, the recipe for a utopian golden age. That solution, “summed up in the single sentence: abolition of private property.”[2] TCM argues that the private property of the proletariat has already been abolished by progress of industry and by the bourgeoisie’s commoditization of proletariat labor. “But in your existing society, private property is already done away with for nine-tenths of the population; its existence for the few is solely due to its non-existence in the hands of those nine-tenths.”[3]  TCM wishes simply to bring about an egalitarian society by the removal of private property for the current oppressors, as well. With clarity, TCM asserts, “the middle class owner of property…must be swept out of the way, and made impossible.”[4]

With egalitarianism the goal, to be achieved through economic means, there are several noteworthy societal changes that accompany the necessary economic progress. “Abolition of the family!”[5] Because the nuclear family is grounded in capitalistic ideas (the husband uses the wife as an engine of production to create more engines of production in order to increase his own private property), it will vanish “with the vanishing of capital.”[6] In order to stop the exploitation of children by their parents TCM advocates replacing home education by social, and thereby “rescue education from the influence of the ruling class.”[7] Consequently, TCM seeks “an openly legalized community of women,” thus doing away “with the status of women as mere instruments of production.”[8] Further, TCM recognizes that countries and nationality will also be abolished – these things vanishing with the abolition of capital and the rise of the proletariat (who will become itself, the nation).

In short, TCM agrees that communism “abolishes eternal truths, it abolishes all religion and all morality, instead of constituting them on a new basis.”[9] The economic reshaping leads to a total societal renovation: “The Communist revolution is the most radical rupture with traditional property relations; no wonder that its development involves the most radical rupture with traditional ideas.[10]Further, TCM describes communists as openly declaring, “that their ends can be attained only by the forcible overthrow of all existing social conditions.”[11]

Even as threatening as that sounds, TCM asserts that the time is right and that many societies are ripe for such revolution, having not so far to go to arrive at the desired destination. TCM describes such societies as having ten characteristics: abolition of land for public purposes, a heavy progressive or graduated income tax, abolition of right of inheritance, confiscation of property of emigrants and rebels, centralization of credit via national bank, centralization of communication and transport, factories as controlled and regulated by the state, equal liability of all to labor, combination of agriculture and manufacture (to the end that town and country no more be distinct), and free education for all children in public schools.[12]

Despite the nearness of the utopian ideal, there is still some distance to be traveled, and TCM expresses a willingness to co-opt certain societal institutions in the pursuit of their ultimate irrelevance. Religion (aspects of Catholicism to be more exact) can serve as a catalyst to move society toward socialism, and once socialism is achieved and communism begins its birth, religion will vanish along with the capital that so empowers it:  “Nothing is easier than to give Christian asceticism a Socialist tinge. Has not Christianity declaimed against private property, against marriage, against the State? Has it not preached that in place of these, charity and poverty, celibacy and mortification of the flesh, monastic life and Mother Church? Socialism is but the holy water with which the priest consecrates the heart-burnings of the aristocrat.”[13]

The goal of communism, if it is the abolition of private property, is really legislation against greed of any kind. Greed leads to fear, and fear leads to hate (oops…wrong world philosophy – that one belongs to Yoda). TCM recounts history as greed leading to oppression. Hence communism is perhaps the most honest of all human governmental systems about its desire to purge the human race of all greed and oppression. “From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs!”[14] Communism sets out to free the human condition from the greed that so entangles us and that ultimately facilitates our own enslavement. Communism is most ambitious in its diagnosis of the human condition (greed, oppression) and in its prescription for redeeming the human condition (the abolition of all private property, and the dissolution of every societal force promulgated by the existence of capital). In communism, morality (albeit entirely redefined) is legislated to the utmost.

By contrast, the Declaration of Independence follows, in large part, John Locke’s Second Treatise on Government, stating, “that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”[15] Locke was remarkably specific that the right to life necessarily included the right to possess personal property, properly earned.[16] Whereas the American constitutional system recognizes the divine origin of humanity and human rights, communism does not. It is no coincidence that the American constitutional system attempts no comprehensive solution of core human vices, rather choosing to emphasize the responsibility and limited scope of human government as protecting three basic rights for all people under its jurisdiction. Because the constitutional system is far less redemptive than the communist one, and far more limited in its scope, we return our focus to communism, for now, as an illustration of the inherent limitation of human government.

If communism is the most ambitious and perhaps most ideal form of human government (from its own point of view), then can it deliver on its promises? Can it eliminate and reverse the consequences of greed? If the theory of materialistic humanism upon which communism is built is a correct understanding of reality – that humans are merely matter and energy and nothing more, then Marx’ and Engels’ diagnosis is as good as any. Though under those circumstances one might be left to wonder how Marx’ and Engels’ could justify the egalitarian ideal, which represents a direct affront to natural selection. In a world where nature is justified in killing (whether by earthquake, volcano, flood, or any other “natural” disaster), how can humanity be held morally culpable for oppressing and destroying? If humanity is nothing more than nature – and nature is all that there is – then that which is simply natural cannot behave unnaturally, can it? While an intriguing issue in its own right, the ethical ramifications of Marx’ and Engels’ diagnosis are fodder for another conversation in another time. Nonetheless, if communism is correct in its first assumption (materialism), then it has difficulty justifying its moral claim to the masses, beyond little more than a pragmatic device that allows oppressor and oppressed to switch roles.

However, if communism is incorrect in its materialistic first assumption, and humanity is indeed endowed by its Creator with certain inalienable rights, then the human condition is not simply plagued by greed and oppression. If the Biblical description of humanity is correct, then greed is simply an outworking of a more central problem: human depravity. Paul makes the case in Romans 1-6, for example, that in our lost state we sin because we are sinners and not the other around. In Pauline theology the sin is symptomatic of the core condition of separateness from God – spiritual deadness (e.g., Eph 2:1-10). If the Biblical model is accurate (and I believe it is), then communism is a system developed for alleviating one symptom (greed leading to oppression), while leaving the root problem of human depravity undiscovered.  In prescribing for symptoms rather than the cause, communism is at best impotent and at worst deceptive in its distraction from the root problem.

On the one hand, if humanity is materialistically originated, then comprehensively reaching government could be viewed as an outright violation of nature. If on the other hand, humanity is divinely originated (in the way that the Bible describes), then government is a tool useless for confronting human depravity. If so, then human government possesses inherent limitation that renders the core of humanity’s spiritual problem as outside the jurisdiction of government.

Despite Marx’ and Engels’ genius, they misdiagnose a spiritual problem as an economic one. No amount of legislation can resolve the evil of the human heart. Law doesn’t remedy the problem; rather law makes the problem evident (e.g., Rom 2:14-15; Gal 3:24). Law serves an important purpose – both in a spiritual sense and in a socio-political one, but it cannot make men righteous. Law cannot impart the spiritual life necessary to transform one from depraved enemy of God to child of God. Law simply points us to Christ – to show us how gravely we need His gift of life, in Him, and through faith in Him

For those attempting to follow the Bible with consistency, we should not look to human government as our savior, nor as a vehicle for the salvation of others. We do no better than Marx and Engels when we seek to impose a theocratic law on others with the purpose of controlling their human depravity. (Jesus will handle the inauguration of His own kingdom, thank you very much – and He never asks for us to do it for Him.) America’s founders recognized this inherent limitation in human government, even if they didn’t get all the details right. They understood that if it were not limited in its scope, government would be despotic. Still, despite steady movement in the other direction, there remains for us, as American citizens, the opportunity to participate and to influence. We should utilize those rights. And we should do so always with the Declaration and the Constitution in view – if we would be good citizens of America. If we would be good citizens of heaven, we should also, “while we have opportunity, let us do good to all men, and especially to those who are of the household of the faith” (Gal 6:10).



[1] Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, The Communist Manifesto (New York, NY: Penguin Books, 1967), 95.

[2] Ibid., 96.

[3] Ibid., 98.

[4] Ibid., 99.

[5] Ibid., 100.

[6] Ibid.

[7] ibid.

[8] ibid., 101.

[9] Ibid., 103.

[10] Ibid., 104.

[11] Ibid., 120.

[12] Ibid., 104-105.

[13] Ibid., 108.

[14] Karl Marx, “Part I” Critique of the Gotha Program, http://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1875/gotha/ch01.htm. Viewed 5/28/2012.

[15] The Declaration of Independence, http://www.archives.gov/exhibits/charters/declaration_transcript.html. Viewed 5/28/2012.

[16] John Locke, Second Treatise on Government, Chapter VIII, Sec. 95-99 and 119-122.