Summer Reading Group: “Rights After Marx”

This is the third post in a seven-part series for Spectrum’s 2017 Summer Reading Group. Each post will be drawn from chapters of the book Humanism and the Death of God by Ronald E. Osborn. You can view the reading/posting schedule here.

Does anyone actually believe in Marxist ideas anymore? Obviously, I can hear you saying, it is a failed movement, with plenty of historical evidence of its inferiority compared with other systems such as democratic liberalism. In fact, the way we think we know about Marx’s influence—with a straight line from him to Stalin, for instance—sometimes impedes our abilities to acknowledge his continuing legacy. Each year I attempt to get my students to think about the way that Marx’s approach to the study of history has shaped us all—even those of us who may be committed capitalists.

And I wish that Osborn’s chapter on the legacy of Marx had helped the non-academic reader a bit more in this arena. Because for most people outside the academy or leftist circles, Marx is a washout and not someone that we would look to for the language of rights. We don’t remember the ways he tried to scientifically make the case for the masses of people—critiquing the Enlightenment’s case for civil rights by looking at them from the bottom up. Marx laid out what he thought was a scientific way of understanding historical change—instead of ideas or great men driving history, it was economic exploitation and class rebellion against it that caused change. His evidence was the specific Western European context he was observing, though his assumption that there would be greater and greater conflict between classes underestimated how strong nationalism would be in bonding people together against a common enemy, with even greater violent results than class warfare ever accomplished. Our human rights work today takes economic autonomy so seriously that we can forget that it was Marx who taught most of us to see that talking about rights without seriously investigating economic exploitation is superficial and self-serving.

Osborn assumes that his readers are familiar with Marx’s commitment to revolution and to the betterment of life for the “huddled masses” and moves quickly into the critique of his attempt to “ground normative politics in a postmetaphysical logic of self-creation through revolutionary violence” (p. 78). But ultimately, he thoroughly slices through Marx’s posturing by asking why should anyone work for the masses or try to achieve equality. Marx provides no good reasons for his commitment to the people at the bottom of society. And what good is the brave new world if there isn’t love?

Marx believed he was trying to do for human history what Darwin did for biological history. But Osborn points out that Darwin wouldn’t have sympathized with the economics of Marx, siding with middle class factory owners rather than working classes. Increasingly, socialists wanted to distance themselves from the implications of social Darwinism with its lack of care for the weak and disenfranchised. But in fact, Darwinism could be used for all the range of economic and political ideals of the time—what it couldn’t do is “provide a normative criteria to judge between such conflicting political ideologies” (p. 83). But Marx was consistently Darwinian in his attempt to make materialistic arguments for his judgments about good and bad ways to organize society.

For Marx, Osborn argues, truth was “the historically contingent product of materially grounded social relationships” (p. 85). Metaphysical and spiritual longings were caused by economic oppression and invented by people to help them with that—he wasn’t so much attacking religion as attacking the things that oppressed people. So his epistemology was totally materialistic—all morality, goodness, human dignity, and truth are socially constructed. But, of course, this was often contradictory to what he was trying to accomplish and even undermined his own belief in human agency. Marx ended up using whatever was at hand to do what he wanted to do—which included the language of virtue and morality that made so much sense to many in his audience.

Because he was teleological in his view of history, not only did the ends justify the means, it actually required the “means” of violence. Osborn roots much of Marx’s temperament and leanings in the tradition of the Hebrew prophets and argues that he relies on religion as much as he rejects it. I would add that there is more than just the Hebrew prophets here-—there is also something of the book of Revelation at play. Marx and his followers were really following many of the Christian apocalyptic traditions before them which leaned on violence for the setting up of the Kingdom.

Most significantly for this book and most readers here, Osborn criticizes Marxian scholars who defend Marx from the violence of his followers—arguing that the horror of Stalin follows “logically, even if not inevitably” (p.100) from Marx. It is important that Osborn contrasts this legacy with the history of violence by Christians, asserting that the latter is an obvious betrayal of the founder of Christianity, while bloodshed is a clear development from Marx. He carefully includes a long section of quotes from leftist leaders and thinkers over the last century who have embraced violence as a positive good—deeply depressing to this reader, if not terrifying.

To counter this anti-humanism, which he admits is in “tension with [Marx’s] still humanistic aspirations” (p.112), Osborn uses Dostoevsky whose character Ivan Karamazov shows how much we want love and compassion even as we try to be rational and are disappointed by human imperfection. Dostoevsky himself saw that secular reformers who were respectable liberals still had a genealogical connection to the “radical and corrosive materialism” and finally “murderous nihilism” of later generations of political actors (p. 118). I wish that Osborn had fleshed out the connection here a bit more, as Dostoevsky might not be enough. Still, he thoroughly makes the case that the real question is: why would we love others or value their rights at all in a Marxist world, when all we need is violent action to create the new world he is trying to claim is the future we should all be working for?

The strongest and most compelling argument in this chapter for me is that our “spontaneous feelings,” subjective though they may indeed be, “are in fact evidence of the divine origins of human nature and God’s presence in the human heart” (p. 121). Even Marx understood that “materialist abstractions” were not a replacement for the motivations that come from affection and sympathy with fellow humans. Marx and his followers couldn’t make the building or beauty of community work, and his inability to take love and forgiveness seriously were a big part of the reason why.

While most human rights workers today probably don’t think of themselves as Marxist and may not realize the extent to which they operate in his debt or a world of his making, it is still vital to point out the ways that our work for others comes from this subjective foundation, not scientific materialism. Osborne’s final appeal is to the action of love, not violence, as the thing that will change the world. “Forgiveness is a world that does not exist in the Marxian lexicon (any more than in the capitalist). But . . . forgiveness may be the last untried “metanarrative” of human history” (p. 126).

Lisa Clark Diller usually lives with her husband Tommy in Chattanooga, TN where she is a professor of history at Southern Adventist University, but is currently on an exchange in Australia at Avondale College.

Image Credit: Oxford University Press.

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This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at

The issue is, at its core, the death of individuality. All these sweeping movements for equity end up killing the people they pur port to be representing. The truth is, we’re all suffering from the primal need for food and shelter, followed by better food and better shelter. While Lenin was fighting for more potatoes and cabbage for the masses, he, himself, was motoring through the bloodied streets in a Rolls Royce.

Liberal egalitarianism is usually birthed and nurtured in dusty “halls of ivy” where those who “can’t” or “won’t” - go to conjure up reasons why no one else “should” either. Only the kids of the rich have time to come up with ways they can, themselves, escape the kind of work and commitment their fathers needed, in order to give them the luxury of philosophizing and turning the world upside-down with their musings. Even today, the loudest noise of social inequality comes from clueless kids high on their own self-importance, while daddy pays the bills at Berkley. Donna Carlson exempted.

Marx gave birth to communism, which, in turn, created a proletariate hungry for power through more power. On the street level, this meant no private ownership - of anything; and a subsistence, based on donations from the “evil” capitalists to the “west”. In this case, the soup from the communal soup pot ended up being served in forced labor camps.

Human nature, not any manifesto, is the great equalizer - no matter what flag we fly, or what ideology tickles our fancy at any time. Anything outside of the kingdom of God is going to end up in the same ash heap of human history.


Russian novels, Dostoevsky in particular, have led a number of agnostic individuals to consider Christianity as a true option. I think of Rene’Girard in particular. Good review of Osborn’s chapter.


the Christain life is built upon Grateful generosity.


Thanks Lisa, I appreciate your review and critique of Osborn’s reflections on Marx.

In my view, Ron’s analysis of Marx and Marxism lacks some nuance. Whereas Ron’s focus on the part of Marx’s ideology as we know it from the Cold War communist and totalitarian regimes in Eastern Europe is an important part of Marx’s Marxism, he seems (to a certain extent) to downplay his vital contribution to empirically based social sciences, most prominent in the Frankfurt School (Horkheimer, Adorno, Habermas, Honneth, to mention a few). This is an applaudable Marxian legacy that is fully alive today and still thriving in continental normative social sciences.

Marx himself had a negative view of ideology itself, often in protest to Hegel’s idealism. Ideology, for Marx, was therefore a pejorative, rather than an inevitable element of social thought. For him ideology was a hegemonic and oppressive manifestation of the ruling class.

Erich Fromm, one of the first generation of the Frankfurt School and Critical Theory, claimed that Marx was in opposition to abstract scientific theories that “excludes history and its process”, i.e., a denigration of any approach to society which devalues the lived experience of “the real economic and social life of man and of the influence of man’s actual way of life on his thinking and feeling.” Thus, Marx protested the idealism of Hegel and German philosophy of his time, which he claimed, “descended from heaven to earth, instead of “from earth to heaven”.

The German philosophers Max Horkheimer and Theodore Adorno (both influential first generation critical theorists of the Frankfurt School), who fled to the US during the Nazi regime of WW2, were deeply indebted to Marx dialectical (historical) legacy in their critique of Holocaust and totalitarian regimes of any colour (Dialectic of Enlightenment). These two influential critical theorists had a deep sense of the historical situatedness of the human condition.

A key question in Ron’s very interesting and well written book is how can we, in a nihilistic age, justify a substantial moral framework? The driving force for Horkheimer and Adorno was to eliminate social injustices and oppressive social structures. As such, they were not nonpartisan or interest-neutral scholars, but rather activist-scholars. In their view, injustice, oppression and lack of freedom speak for themselves, and is not in need of an elaborate, coherent theory of justification (Adorno’s “outrage”).

For me, Adorno’s “outrage” is reminiscent of Dostoevsky’s insight (The Brothers Karamazov) that as human beings we have a self-authenticating power and freedom to rise above our own narrow interests, on behalf of the different Other. In Charles Lamore’s words, reflecting on the Grand Inquisitor-chapter: “One can grasp a truth without being able, or without feeling the need, to formulate it with conceptual precision. Indeed, important truths about human life often exert a hold on our attention only when they come embodied in a powerful story.”

That is what ‘incarnational truth’ means to me.

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Ole, thanks for these comments. The original manuscript of my book in fact began with epigraph taken from Dialectic of Enlightenment (that had to be omitted since the publisher, Stanford University, was asking an exorbitant fee to use the quote; ironically, Horkheimer and Adorno’s words are now also subject to capitalist publishing demands!).

But are you aware that Marx’s name is not mentioned once in Dialectic of Enlightenment? The Stanford edition includes an afterward in which the editors point out that the text is in fact marked by “its relegation” of political economy “to the level of the merely implicit.” The “Marxian concept of history is largely absent from Horkheimer’s and Adorno’s historical-philosophical sketch,” they continue. “Its place is taken by the more general antagonism between domination of nature and enslavement to it.” They cite Adorno himself, who in the 1940s explained Dialectic of Enlightenment as a critique of Marx and his successors. My Stanford edition also contains a commentary by Willem van Reijen and Jan Bransen titled “The Disappearance of Class History in Dialectic of Enlightenment.” This is by no means to deny Marx’s influence on the Frankfurt School or on Dialectic of Enlightenment. But it is rather interesting how far various schools of 20th-century Marxism actually departed from Marx himself. More interesting to me personally than the Frankfurt School’s important yet in many ways highly selective appropriation of Marx is what Marx himself wrote and believed, and the question of whether this has any bearing on the waves of collective bloodletting that have repeatedly followed attempts to build communist societies. As I wrote in the introduction to my chapter on Marx in Humanism and the Death of God:

By focusing attention on structural and economic realities that constrain freedom and lead to exploitation, misery, and oppression, Marx provided vital tools for champions of social justice in his day and in our own. In the academy this includes liberation theologians, critical theorists in the Frankfurt School, and neo-Gramscian international relations scholars concerned with resisting the perverse effects of hyper-globalization and capitalism. Nevertheless, Andrew Levine writes, the labors of the great majority of today’s self-described Marxists, who in good postmodern fashion freely mix and match Marx’s ideas with any number of heterogeneous belief structures, “has little connection to the letter or spirit of Marx’s work.” …In order for Marxism “to be able to offer any moral guidance of whatever sort as an independent system,” Nicholas Rengger writes [in an attempt to salvage Marx’s legacy], “we must believe that Marxism offers not just a, but the, appropriate way to conceptualize the relations between the past, the present, and the future.” Such beliefs no longer being morally or intellectually defensible, Rengger continues, “the only way that the legacy of Marx will be able to live on in the context of the ethics of international relations—and in terms of explaining it as well—lies in it existing as a tributary that can feed other traditions not so generally problematic . . . The point, perhaps, might be not just to understand Marxism; the point might be to change it.” In the process of mining Marx’s writings for insights that might be adapted in new circumstances to help advance humanistic values, though, we must not pass too quickly over a troubling question—the question of the burden of history…Marx’s attempt to ground normative politics in a postmetaphysical logic of self-creation through revolutionary violence, I will attempt to show, exposes the morally ambiguous and finally tragic legacy of Marxism for humanism.

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Thank you, Ron, for engaging! I’ll give a repsonse to your comments tomorrow (Norwegian time). Reading your book has impressed and impacted me, both positively and critically. I’ve ordered two of Conor Cunningham’s books: Genealogy of Nihilism and Transcendence and Phenomenology. Looking forward to a closer a look at Cunningham’s Radical-Orthodoxy-approach.


Thanks Ole, for continuing the conversation. You’ve pointed out what most non-social scientists are unaware of: the importance of mark for empirical research in the social sciences. We historians often think of ourselves as influenced as much by those disciplines as we are by the humanities–and that’s thanks to Marx’s approach to history.

Your final paragraph is just beautiful. That “self-authenticating power and freedom” is indeed a form of evidence–and like it or not, “evidence” is what so many are looking for. To realize that they might not find material evidence external to their subjectivity in order to defend the dignity of humanity is what is important about Ron’s book, as you’ve noted.

I do think Ron’s connection between Marx and the totalitarian regimes is taken as a given by most people who read this website, but intellectuals don’t always make that link so this chapter goes a long way toward providing evidence of that.

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Might I suggest, with apologies to author, a “left after Marx” might be inadvisable.

Can the state usurp the power -or the rights- of individualism without incurring an ultimately fatal self inflicted wound?

Ron, the way I see it, is that there are different versions of Marxism just as there are different versions of Adventism, and some are even mutually excluding. Why? Because both Marxism and Adventism are historically and culturally conditioned and evolving events in human history. Therefore, there will always be competing versions of Marxism (and Adventism) with their own contexts and claims to truth. That’s why I’m not sceptical of being selective. It all depends on one’s perspective (to invoke Nietzsche’s perspectivism). For Horkheimer and Adorno in Dialectic of Enlightenment, their perspective was the horrors of Holocaust, that led them to write a critique of Modernity and Enlightenment rationality that had now turned on humanity itself, in the name of instrumental reason.

And yes, Adorno criticised Marx’s Marxism, especially his axiomatic class-struggle perspective as insufficient for explaining the social pathologies in the context of the 20th century. He was also critical of the fascist communism of Stalin and claimed that it betrayed the socialism that originally informed Marxism. As Horkheimer put it in a conversation with Adorno in 1956: “It must become quite clear from our general position why one can be a communist and yet despise the Russians.” So, I think, the question is not whether Adorno and Horkheimer were Marxists, but rather what kind of Marxism they identified with.

What I think we both agree on is as you say: “By focusing attention on structural and economic realities that constrain freedom and lead to exploitation, misery, and oppression, Marx provided vital tools for champions of social justice in his day and in our own.” This is the legacy of Marx’s dialectical materialism, which I think is still relevant today.

It is a paradox that in the wake of the emergence of the global neo-liberal capitalism in the 1990’s, which marked the final deconstruction of the Soviet Union, and taken as the definitive end for Marxism, Marx’s critical theory still has something to tell us about social and political pathologies of our present age.

Both Marx and Engels. regarded as the fathers of Historical Materialism were also indebted to the work ofv American Philosopher Lewis Henry Morgan( see
Ancient Society, 1877). Both social theoreticians produced works highly regarded by Theoretical Political/Social Scientists. and university students in their day, but some of this led to false conclusions.ENGELS: " The part by labour in the transition from Ape to Man"(1876)and “the Origin of the Family, Private Property, and the State”(1884). Marx was a prolific writer , and predicted the fall of the United States due, as he claimed, to an indelible class structure based on race, and also hierarchical class relations among white supremacists based on wealth strata distinctions among themselves. Of course some pointed out the privelege enjoyed by communist leaders vis-a-vis
the ordinary and trhe lumpen proliteriat which in itself trashed the 'holier than thou" theorising, as it were of , of the communists. Moreover Marxrefused to acknowledge the revelations of religion that man was innately born with a capacity for evil which was the reason for the moralitybteaching found in the Bible, notably the Ten Commandments , and theb teachings of Jesus the Christ. He boldly proclaimed that religion was “the opiate of the masses”. Where he went terribly astray was to draw examples from supposedly classless societies of mankind such as the hunter gatherers of the past. It may have amodicum of truth that the hunter gatherers did not not engage in mass slaughter and violent murder , theft , and other extreme vices , as far as is now known but conditions were different in co-dependent humans dedpendent on each other for survival . However things changed radically after the FLOOD, dated by some scientists to have been around 11,000 BC. Human nature then took over after gathering was phased out and males built granaries to store surplus. Females were then relergated to being “Reproducers” and performers of domestic chores , and of course were collected in harems for the pleasure of dominant males. . The heavy muscular work needed to plough ground to plant food and capture animals and slaughter therm for food gave rise to male supremacy and what is known as “the historical defeat of women”. Regardless of the prostestaions of atheists such as Marx and Engels, religion, even christianity and Judaism , with all their inadequacies and so on, have done afar better job of , for example, equalising the social status of men and women over the ages.