MLK and Marxism

The following essay offers a window into conversations within theological studies concerning the use of certain analytical tools to better understand the socio-economic forces of our time. Dr. Adams turns specifically to Martin Luther King, Jr.’s, cautious yet open-minded approach to socialism or Marxist thinking during his career as a way to critique the poverty and alienation affecting Black communities and the wider world. Dr. Adam’s full bio is below.


Toward a Philosophy of Black Poverty

Introduction

For the better part of four decades, wages have stagnated across the country. Our post-industrial era is being renamed - in a more sanitized way - the “gig economy,” in which workers with all types of backgrounds have to find multiple sources of income in order to make ends meet, often working longer hours with fewer benefits and protections. Workers are also forced to be more “mobile” (another sanitized word) or willing to leave family, friends, and loved ones to seek work elsewhere in different communities and states. Addiction rates are increasing, poverty rates aren’t being reduced, and jobs aren’t coming back to many rural and urban communities.

In light of these continued realities, and as the farther left-wing of the Democratic party continues to openly engage the rhetoric of democratic socialism, I wanted to engage some key sources of the Black theological tradition and their relationship with strands of Marxist thought. While there are many possible conversation partners, I have chosen specifically the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Martin Luther King Jr. on Marxism and Capitalism

In bringing Martin Luther King, Jr. into the conversation of Marxism and Black poverty in the United States, it’s appropriate to first affirm Dr. King as a Black liberation theologian and a modern-day prophet. As a student of nonviolent civil disobedience, King sought systems-level answers to Marx’s critique of the capitalism he witnessed during his lifetime. King understood capitalism as essentially a struggle between the owners of production and the workers, whom Marx regarded as the real producers. King knew, of course, that in most parts of the country Black folks weren’t even accepted as workers, except for the most menial jobs - jobs that reinforced their so-called lower social status in the white imagination, including the white working class.

Karl Marx

Karl Marx

Thus, King understood Marxism to be most productive in its analytical critique of capitalism, particularly for the way capitalism alienates the lower-class employee, as is certainly still true today. He also recognized that Marxism was conspicuously quiet on matters of race. King was certain that the social arrangements necessary for capitalism to flourish (for the sake of some) ensured the poverty of those who were not able to produce capital or earn a decent wage for themselves and their families. He believed that capitalism, therefore, played a major role in increasing the gap between the exceedingly rich and the dirt poor. To quote King at length:

“…[I]n spite of the shortcomings of his analysis, Marx had raised some basic questions. I was deeply concerned from my early teen days about the gulf between superfluous wealth and abject poverty, and my reading of Marx made me ever more conscious of this gulf. Although modern American capitalism had greatly reduced the gap through social reforms, there was still need for a better distribution of wealth. Moreover, Marx had revealed the danger of the profit motive as the sole basis of an economic system: capitalism is always in danger of inspiring men to be more concerned about making a living than making a life. We are prone to judge success by the index of our salaries or the size of our automobiles, rather than by the quality of our service and relationship to humanity - thus capitalism can lead to a practical materialism that is as pernicious as the materialism taught by communism.”

King continues, “In short, I read Marx as I read all of the influential historical thinkers - from a dialectical point of view, combining a partial ‘yes’ and a partial ‘no.’ In so far as Marx posited a metaphysical materialism, an ethical relativism, and a strangulating totalitarianism, I responded with an unambiguous ‘no’; but in so far as he pointed to weaknesses of traditional capitalism, contributed to the growth of a definite self-consciousness in the masses, and challenged the social conscience of the Christian churches, I responded with a definite ‘yes.’ “

King, as a theologian, believed that truth would never be completely found in any one particular socio-economic system - neither capitalism nor Marxism. Capitalism opted to ignore the strength of people working collectively to effect change (except when it benefited the wealthy few), while Marxism, as it became known through the world in its often tyrannical communist forms, undercut the value of the individual and other freedoms of expression. Reading through the lens of Christian theology, King believed “The Kingdom of God is neither the thesis of individual enterprise nor the antithesis of collective enterprise, but a synthesis which reconciles the truths of both.”

King’s view of Marxism, according to historian Clayborne Carson, was influenced by the French Catholic philosopher, Jacques Maritain. Maritain, addressing communism as one form of Marxist thought, understood “(1) that Communism was the final symptom of the disease of modernity, (2) that Marx's communism was philosophical and metaphysical, not economic, and (3) that communism was a revolt against, a Christian world unfaithful to its own principles.”

While King does not embrace the total judgment of Marxism as a violent disease, his lifelong assessment of Marxism will generally affirm the social criticisms offered by Maritain. All in all, King's strategic focus seemed to shift ever more toward the economic issues raised by Marxist analysis. King took seriously Marx's take on the condition of economic labor, the distribution of economic poverty, and the way that real estate is manipulated for the ruling classes. When King, in the later 1960s, turned to the economic issues surrounding the capitalist imperial practices of the United States’ engagement in Vietnam, his views were deemed as radical and critics claimed King’s movement was veering off course.

Though King’s expansion to poverty and economics felt like a shift to some people, others will argue that this was in keeping with a long-held concern by King. Civil rights without economic opportunities and economic power would eventually mean little. In his article, “The Radical Gospel of Martin Luther King”, the author, theologian, and activist Osagyefo Uhuru Sekou, claims that, “King’s anti-capitalist feelings began when, as a child, he saw the bread lines during the Great Depression and asked his parents about the poor and hungry.” Reflecting on these moments in a paper during his divinity school days, King would later write, “I can see the effects of this early childhood experience on my present anti-capitalistic feelings.”

According to Coretta Scott King, the man she would go on to marry was the first Negro she had met who said he was a democratic socialist. In a July 1952 love letter, the smitten King lay bare his socialist heart. Of capitalism, he said that he “failed to see its relative merits” and believed that it had “outlived its usefulness.” As he strikingly confessed: “I am more socialistic in my economic theory than capitalistic.”

For King, capitalism was “a system that takes necessities from the masses to give luxuries to the classes.” Though he noted that was bitterly “opposed to the metaphysical structure of communism as well as Marxism,” he learned from reading Karl Marx “that religion can so easily become a tool of the middle class to keep the proletariat oppressed. Too often the church talked about a future good ‘over yonder’ totally forgetting the present evil over here.”

But even with King’s appreciation for Marxist analysis, he didn’t easily equate this theoretical tool with the dominant socio-political form (e.g., communism) it took in certain parts of the world, like the U.S..S.R. or China. He was particularly concerned, unsurprisingly, with communism’s repression of religion and its disregard for matters of faith. Though King understood the merit of criticizing the other-worldliness of certain forms of religious expression, he knew that several traditions within Christianity also called for the betterment of physical, material conditions in the here and now. King thus illustrates, as certain other liberation theologians would later do, the creative possibilities of integrating a Christian theological corrective to Marxist analysis, and, at the same time, allowing Marxist analysis to push Christian theology and ethics into a greater appreciation for tending to the actual physical conditions in which people lived - especially as it applied to economic suffering in the United States.

King and Kwame Nkrumah (Wikimedia Commons)

King and Kwame Nkrumah (Wikimedia Commons)

Sekou goes on to write about King, quoted at length: “Having attended the 1960 inauguration of socialist President Kwame Nkrumah in Ghana, King continued to be a keen observer of revolutionary movements around the globe. Noted anti-imperialist Marxist C.L.R. James recalled that King made it clear during their 1964 meeting in London that he agreed with James’ Marxist analysis. King, according to James, accepted Marx’s critique of capitalism but would not state this publicly because of the anti-communist hysteria in the United States. Michael Harrington, author of the agenda of the Poor People’s Campaign — the 1968 effort by King and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference to demonstrate for economic justice — and eventual founder of the Democratic Socialists of America, believed that King was careful in his public pronouncements on socialism because it could alienate liberals and perhaps confuse his followers.”

In King’s gospel, the poor in the United States are central to God’s vision for redeeming the world. In the domain of Black Liberation Theology, Marx’s critique of capitalism helps us understand why Black poverty is a critical component to the Church’s reflection on the human condition. Marx's critique of capitalism places emphasis on the lack of labor production as found in oppressive control of the ultra wealthy 1% over the labor market and the larger society.

In the United States, a disproportionate number of Black folk are either unemployed or they have been forced to work long hours in mostly low to minimum wage jobs. Poverty in the Black community persists across regions, in both urban and rural settings. Similar to racism and poverty, capitalism in the United States denies the humanity of Black people by not allowing them to fully participate in the economic life of American society.

While the Marxist critique of capitalism does not take race and gender into account, Marx's take on labor and wages demonstrates a genuine concern for human beings who continue to be alienated and used for the economic benefit of the capitalist-minded employer. For Marx, this has a number of negative existential effects: alienation, the numbing of the mind, the loss of meaningful labor and division within the ranks of the working class and underemployed as laborers fight each other over their constant lack of economic resources.

Thus, we see the overlap between King’s concern for the full flourishing of Black life in the United States, and, yes, for all people, to the point that King lent the weight of his support for a sanitation workers’ strike in Memphis on the eve of his assassination. To be a Christian is to care for the whole person, spirit and body, and to see these as two interwoven realities that make up the human being. Any tool of critique that can be used to point out the immorality and injustice within any given humanly constructed social system is fair game for the theologian and Christian, to the extent that such tools point to the same ends as the liberating gospel of Jesus of Nazareth.

Conclusion

Situating King’s relationship to Marxist analysis reminds us that it’s important for Black theologians today to not be shy at turning to a method of critique that can lay bare not only the operations of white supremacy, but also it’s partner-in-crime: capitalist exploitation. As we work toward the eradication of persistent poverty in Black communities, we should turn fearlessly to those theoretical analyses that help us fully understand the sources of material suffering, suffering which Christian theologians deem to be sinful and unrighteous. This includes economic systems of oppression just as much as racism - which we inaccurately deem to be a personal attitude or simply a series of customs and laws unrelated to an economic system.

Photo by Taffese

Photo by Taffese

As valuable as Marxist analysis is - and we have built the case that it is, indeed, valuable for Black theological reflection - we must point out one final temptation that is emerging in many left-wing communities that engage socialist thought. In addressing the economic oppression of poor folks in America, black and white, the temptation in progressive circles has always been to suppress racial identity over against class identity and struggle. While the racial resentment of marginalized whites has been on full display in the Trump era, we should not assume that similar sentiments aren’t also present on the left-wing of the political spectrum among some white progressive folks, too.

According to theologian, Stephen G. Ray, Jr., “White resentment is a dangerous thing. Black and brown communities have been destroyed because of it.” In speaking of political strategy for the U.S., Ray adds, “A politics of economics has been and is a loser when put up against a politics of white identity. This is something most Marxists and Socialists never get. The only way to beat a politics of identity is to offer a more compelling vision of what our identity ought to be.” Until Black people become a new people with a new identity, they will continue to be defined and identified by capitalists as the modern day proletariat—an expendable class of workers whom capitalists feel can easily be taken advantage of.

This is the struggle in front of Black liberation theologians, and it is also a challenge for those white sisters and brothers who desire to engage with us to end all forms of oppression in this country. A vigorous analysis of suffering demands we hold carefully together our history in all of its complex, intersecting forms of domination - both identity-based and economic.


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The Reverend Doctor Darvin A. Adams I completed his Ph.D. in Theology and Ethics at the Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary on the campus of Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois.

A native of Hopkinsville, Kentucky, Dr. Adams is a pastor in the Christian Methodist Episcopal Church tradition and an elected city councilman in Hopkinsville (Ward 1).

His research interests are Contemporary Theology, Black Theology (first-generation) and Poverty, John Wesley and the Poor, Pneumatology, Black Culture, Black Religion, Slavery, Marxism and Late Capitalism, and Poetry.