Our Post-Democratic Independence Day: For a Ruthless Critique of Everything


Dear friends,

Today, after 248 years, can be legitimately described as America’s first post-democratic Fourth of July.

We’ve had plenty of pre-democratic Independence Days. This is because our republic existed for over a century without giving Native and enslaved people, women, and others the right to vote.

But today is something different. It’s on the other side of the presidential office being given dictatorial powers of impunity. The historian Heather Cox Richardson has correctly named that our country has undergone a “coup.”

In honor or infamy of this 4th, my mind goes to our dear old brother Karl Marx. Marx called for “a ruthless critique of everything,” and that’s precisely what I think America needs today.

If you’re allergic to Marx, that’s fine. I disagree with him on plenty of things. But that old scary bearded German has a lot to teach us about our time and its task.

In 1843, when Marx was just 25, he wrote a short but powerful essay entitled “For a Ruthless Criticism of Everything Existing.” This essay was published in a journal Marx and his friend Arnold Ruge edited in Paris. The journal only published one edition, which is a good reminder to try things, even if they don’t succeed or only succeed once.

What I love about Marx is not the conclusions he reached; I oppose communism and materialism. But I love Marx’s approach to thinking.

Marx called for a “critical philosophy” that would constantly ask difficult questions and analyze our most basic assumptions and beliefs. For Marx, this is the key task of philosophy: to make us aware and thus to interrupt the autopilot of religious beliefs and cultural values.

Marx called this “critique” or “clarification.” It’s like wiping the windows to get a clearer view of what‘s in front of us. To use another analogy, it’s like digging beneath the surface to see what we’re really standing on.

Marx wanted a courageous honesty marked by clarity and genuine conviction – not group think and unquestionable dogmas. For Marx, and I agree, critique – asking questions and evaluating assumptions – is the precondition of moral responsibility.

Marx writes,

“We realize all the more clearly what we have to accomplish in the present – I am speaking of a ruthless critique of everything existing, ruthless in two senses: The criticism must not be afraid of its own conclusions, nor of conflict with the powers that be. I am therefore not in favor of setting up any dogmatic flag…” (13)

“Ruthless criticism” is question-asking that follows arguments to their reasonable conclusions and isn’t afraid of the censorship of powerful leaders. Again, it’s courageous honesty about our basic beliefs. In the Bible, this is described as the prophetic vocation.

Marx continues,

“Consciousness is something that the world must acquire, like it or not. The reform of consciousness consists only in enabling the world to clarify its consciousness, in waking itself from its dream about itself, in explaining to it the meaning of its own actions. Our whole task can consist only in putting religious and political questions into self-conscious human form – as is the case in Feuerbach’s criticism of religion.”

Here Marx’s thought is deeply Jewish and Christian. “Reform of consciousness” or what the Bible calls metanoia (repentance) begins with asking hard questions about God and power, and thus becoming more awake and clear. Jesus began his public movement with this call to repentance.

What do we believe about God?

Why do we believe it?

Are those reasons actually compelling?

What are the unexplored consequences of those beliefs? Are they good or destructive, liberating or oppressive?

Much like Kant, Marx concludes,

“Our motto must therefore be: Reform of consciousness not through dogmas, but through analyzing the mystical consciousness, the consciousness which is unclear to itself, whether it appears in religious or political form… The work of our time [is] to clarify to itself (critical philosophy) the meaning of its own struggle and its own desires. This is the work for the world and for us. It can only be the work of joint forces. It is a matter of *confession*, no more. To have its sins forgiven mankind has only to declare them to be what they really are.” (15)

For Marx, humanity’s chief sin is denial and dishonesty. So “critical philosophy” is the work of confessing this dishonesty and denial, and seeking clarity and truth. This work focuses primarily on our struggles and desires – the matters that motivate us to believe and act the way we do.

In the same year, Marx started developing his critique of religion. Like Dietrich Bonhoeffer, I consider this one of the most enduringly valuable aspects of Marx’s thought. He laid it out in his “Contribution to the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right” (1843).

Here Marx declares, “The criticism of religion is the premise of all criticism” (53).

What Marx means is that most societies consider their religion unquestionable. And religion serves as the basis of all of our other fundamental beliefs, which thus become unquestionable. So when religion itself is allowed to be asked hard questions, then a society is truly open to “critique” or the prophetic project of seeking radical honesty and repentance in every area of life.

Marx writes, “Thus the criticism of heaven is transformed into the criticism of earth, the criticism of religion into the criticism of law, and the criticism of theology into the criticism of politics” (54). Marx saw his society, much like ours today, as dominated by racial division, hatred, mediocrity, and a political elite monopolizing power (56). And so he saw his work as this task of critiquing, all the way to our theology and legal order.

Marx then states the core of his critique or clarification of religion: “man makes religion; religion does not make man” (53).

This little sentence is truly revolutionary. Marx’s point is simple but profound: much of what we consider “God-made” is actually man-made. But we call our religion God-made so that our human preferences and power structures become sacrosanct and unquestionable.

And this is precisely why religious leaders condemn critique: they don’t want their system to be “clarified” or shown to be serving their own interests and power.

Marx goes on to make the same point about nationalism: people assume they have been made by their beloved culture, but they themselves have made – and can unmake – their culture. Modern theorists call this “constructivism.”

In a sense, Marx was one of the first to call for the critique of religious nationalism. Here Marx makes his famous statement, “Religion is the opium of the people” (54).

What Marx means is that religion is often a drug, dealt by religious leaders, which we shoot up to make ourselves feel better about ourselves and our world. But like a drug, the ideology is dishonest and not rooted in reality. Rather than asking hard questions and taking responsibility, we prefer “easy answers and half-baked solutions,” as Martin Luther King Jr insisted.

Marx continues, “The criticism of religion disillusions man so that he will think, act, and fashion his reality as a man who has lost his illusions and regained his reason” (54).

I think this is Marx at his best: (1) question the unquestionable, (2) abandon beliefs that prove illusory, and (3) reclaim a deep sense of responsibility for one’s beliefs, actions, and culture. Marx called this “unmasking human self-alienation” (54). In his City of God, St. Augustine called this “stripping off our deceptive veils.”

But this is where Marx is also at his weakest. He declares that after we have critiqued our religion, “man will revolve around himself as his own true sun… Man is the supreme being for man” (54, 60). Here Marx plants his “dogmatic flag.”

Notice this crucial mistake. Having rejected dogmatism, Marx now installs his own dogma: man as the center of the universe and the “abolition of religion” (60). This is precisely where Marx’s philosophy turns hypocritical and violent, because it becomes certain. Certainty is such a dangerous, destructive thing as our contemporary wars devastatingly demonstrate. And Marx, of all people, should have known this.

Ironically, then, Marx contradicts his own critical project, which centralized our capacity to question ourselves, to rise above human systems, and to seek greater truth and justice. Yes, critique exposes the drug addiction of religion. But it also opens us to our self-transcendence, our ability to search for our origins, our meaning, and our hope. Marx’s own dogmatism derailed him from arriving at this key implication of his thought.

Marx is a valuable conversation partner in this critical moment in America and around the world. He challenges us to ask the hard questions and to reject denial, dishonesty, and delusion, especially in our religious nationalism. He urges us to re-examine what we see as God-made and unquestionable. But Marx also warns us not to set up new “dogmatic flags” that blind us to the depth and mystery of being human.

Rather than arriving at a new total system, critical philosophy brings us into fresh honesty that opens us to one another. It should make us more careful listeners and strengthen our capacity for critical thinking and dialogue with others. It should lead to radical nonviolence.

Everyone has something important to learn from Marx. Religious believers should avoid the “opium” of unquestionable, easy answers. And secularists should resist replacing religion with yet another dogmatic system.

To bring my essay to a conclusion, Marx writes,

“[W]hat we have to accomplish in the present…[is] a ruthless critique of everything existing… Our motto must therefore be: Reform of consciousness not through dogmas, but through analyzing the mystical consciousness, the consciousness which is unclear to itself, whether it appears in religious or political form… It is a matter of *confession*, no more. To have its sins forgiven mankind has only to declare them to be what they really are.” (15)

Today on this post-democratic Independence Day, we Americans must ruthlessly critique everything existing in our society. And this critique must begin with interrogating our increasing addiction to religious nationalism, authoritarian temptations, and messianic illusions. For me as a follower of Jesus, there is only one Messiah and looking for salvation in any political establishment is destined for disappointment.

I return to our wildly imperfect Founders and their enduring Declaration of Independence:

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all [people] 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. That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among [people], deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness. Prudence, indeed, will dictate that Governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes; and accordingly all experience hath shewn, that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable, than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed. But when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Object evinces a design to reduce them under absolute Despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such Government, and to provide new Guards for their future security. Such has been the patient sufferance of these Colonies; and such is now the necessity which constrains them to alter their former Systems of Government. The history of the present King of Great Britain is a history of repeated injuries and usurpations, all having in direct object the establishment of an absolute Tyranny over these States. To prove this, let Facts be submitted to a candid world.”

On this post-democratic day in America, now closer than ever to “absolute Despotism,” I invite us into the vocation that Karl Marx gave us. Let us ruthlessly critique everything existing. Let us enter into a repentant pursuit of truth. And let us embrace our sacred responsibility to seek life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness for all people as equals with unalienable rights endowed by our Creator.

Happy 4th!

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