Greg Moses
Challenge of Nonviolence to Marxism
Rethinking Marxism Conference

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The Challenge of Nonviolence to Marxism

Whenever Martin Luther King, Jr., is considered in relation to Karl Marx it is usually to emphasize the way that King's thinking tilted toward communism. For good reasons, the thesis is popular, even among serious students of King's life and thought. In the first part of this paper I will survey good reasons for thinking of King in the Marxist tradition. A review of his work confirms that, from an early age, King viewed Marxism with respect and admiration. But in the second half of the paper, I would like to suggest a new framework for comparing King and Marx. Rather than view King as an extension or confirmation of Marxism, I would like to suggest how King's nonviolence challenges Marxism. In brief, I will suggest how Marxism might tilt toward King. I will dwell upon three features of King's philosophy that seem to me most worthy of consideration: King's ethic of love , his pluralism, and the art of mass civil disobedience as one tactic of nonviolent direct action. I would like to take for my central text, the collection of Massey lectures published under the title, The Trumpet of Conscience.
The thesis that King tilted toward communism has always found its advocates. FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover was sure that King took orders from communists. King's own writings express a sympathetic if critical acquaintance with communist literature such as Marx's Capital. And King's strategic focus seemed to shift ever more toward the kinds of economic issues raised by Marxist analysis, i.e. the condition of labor, the distribution of poverty, and the way that real estate is manipulated for owning classes. When King turned to these issues and denounced the war in Viet Nam, too, it became clear how revolutionary he could be. But King's engagement with Marxism did not begin late.

When King published his account of the Montgomery bus boycott, he reserved for the middle chapter an account of his, "Pilgrimage to Nonviolence" (King 1958). The first half of the chapter offers an account of intellectual pilgrimage, while the second half defends nonviolence in terms of six principles or basic aspects. It is interesting to note at the outset that King's discussion of Marx runs to nearly four pages, making it the longest section of the chapter, even when compared to two pages on Niebuhr, or three pages on the concept of love. It is also interesting to note that when King published a revision of the pilgrimage chapter for the Christian Century in 1960, he made no mention of Marx at all (King 1960).

In the "Pilgrimage to Nonviolence," King states that he began a serious reading of Marx during the Christmas holidays of 1949, "to try to understand the appeal of communism for many people" (King 1958: 9). According to volume one of the Papers, King composed a note to himself in early 1951 while enrolled in Kenneth L. Smith's course on "Christianity and Society" at Crozer Seminary. In the note, King first criticizes Marx for declaring that Capitalism carries the seeds of its own destruction. "The actual fact is that every social institution carries the seed of its own destruction," wrote King (emphasis added). But laying aside this brief criticism, King goes on to affirm that, "capitalism has seen its best days in America, and not only in America, but in the entire world" (Carson 1992: 435-36). One day, King predicts, labor will be able to place a President in the White House. "This will inevitably bring about a nationalization of industry. That will be the end of capitalism. I am not saying that there is a conscious move toward socialism, not even by labor, the move is certainly unconscious. But there is a definite move away from capitalism, whether we conceive of it as conscious or unconscious. Capitalism finds herself like a losing football team in the last quarter trying all types of tactics to survive."

Consistently, King's treatment of Marxism takes a Christian perspective, and this begins as early as his seminary writings. In a formal presentation to Professor Smith's class, King reported on three opinions that Jaques Maritain held with respect to Communism: (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" (Carson 1992: 437-38). To begin with the disease of modernity, Maritain argued that it was generally caused by dissociation from theology, with the consequences of (a) "agnosticism, or the complete separation of the knowing mind from the object of knowledge," (b) "naturalism, or the complete separation of the world from its divine Source or Ground," and (c) "individualism, or the complete separation of the rebellious human will from any object of trust and obedience." While King does not quite embrace the ultimate judgment that Marxism is a disease, King's lifelong appraisal of Marxism will generally affirm the epistemological, cosmological, and social criticisms offered by Maritain.

In August of 1952, King preached a sermon at his father's church on, "The Challenge of Communism to Christianity." The sermon elicited a written response from the dean of the Morehouse School of Religion, Melvin H. Watson, who was obviously pleased with the overall presentation, but who felt obliged to record three criticisms: (1) that Marx's materialism was more defensible than King had allowed, (2) that King should look into the history of the Russian Church in order to better understand communist attitudes toward religion, and (3) that Stalin was a kind of pioneer in anti-racism (Carson 1994: 156-57). These remarks from a prominent administrator at King's alma mater indicate that King's intellectual development had not been sheltered from sympathetic treatments of Marxism. Perhaps this is why King investigated Marx as early as 1949, in order to comprehend the appeal of communist literature for many people.

In 1963, when King published a selection of sermons under the title, Strength to Love, we find one of those sermons addressing the question, "How a Christian should view Communism" (King 1963). Here King's position is at once sympathetic but critical. King is sympathetic to the communist vision of a classless society, but rejects three of communism's premises: (1) metaphysical materialism, (2) ethical relativism, and (3) political totalitarianism (see Ansbro 1982: 183-87). So far, the cumulative evidence from King's early writings would seem to indicate that communism presented an abiding intellectual challenge for King. And Professor Smith has argued, among others, that King became increasingly "Marxist" during the 1960s. The evidence for this trend is amply indicated by King's shift from race to class analysis as he became increasingly involved in questions of labor and poverty.

But in order to determine what is Marxist and what is not, we must return to Maritain's claim above that Marx was more of a metaphysician than an economist. The more seriously we take Marxism to be bound up with metaphysical materialism as a springboard into political economy, the more intriguing do we find the philosophical relationship between Marxism and King.

To what extent can a Marxism centered in God be considered Marxist at all? Or to ask another question: could there be such a thing as Marxist nonviolence? In the end, I think we have to confront the conclusion that King's later years signaled not a return to Marx, but a new method and metaphysics of liberation that has been generally understood as liberation theology. If Marx is indisputably influential, we may also want to say that Marx has been superseded.

With respect to King's standard refutation of Marxist materialism, relativism, and totalitarianism, it strikes me that King's arguments are quite weak. And we see that the weakness of the attack on materialism was brought to King's attention as early as 1952. Since King maintained the terms of his attack, even after the criticisms were brought to light, I suspect that the refutations were selected for their weakness and directed toward audiences who either did not or would not take much time to understand the sophisticated depths of communist logic. King's standard objections thus mirrored a psychological aversion to communism that could be reflected back upon an audience in order to set the audience at ease and prepare the way for sympathetic appraisals. Sophisticated ears, however, could recognize that while the objections ring true, they are utterly superficial.

On metaphysical materialism--King ignores the thesis on Feuerbach and Marx's attention to sensuous human activity. The recentering of value around this human activity seems to strike the heart of King's own project. Furthermore, the insistence that human being is shaped by environmental concerns is also central to King.

On ethical relativism--King seems to be attacking violence and clandestine activity as unworthy means to an end. But the communist judgment against capitalism is never questioned by King.

On political totalitarianism--this is the rough question since Lenin. Whether it characterizes Marxism at its best is another story.

In sum, something about Marxism compelled King from an early age. Despite the quibbles one might have on various fronts, King acknowledged the central force of Marxism as a fitting indictment of Western and Christian decadence. What moved King was a sense that a revolutionary spirit could be developed to displace Marxism as a force for change in the modern world. For King, nonviolence was the answer.

Having introduced the general line of argument, I would like to use the above framework for a reading of the Massey lectures that King delivered over Canadian radio in the closing days of 1967. These lectures were later published posthumously as Trumpet of Conscience. This artifact of King's philosophy was produced at a time when King's Marxist filiations were most apparent, but I think we must conclude that Marxism can't swallow up the contribution that King made. Something profound is added. Marxist thought ponders not only what is lifted up in such a dialectic, but also what is exceeded and overturned.

Several passages from Trumpet of Conscience place King in sympathy with Marxist tenets, and the overall tone of the book is quite revolutionary as we shall see. In the closing lecture, delivered as a sermon live from Ebenezer Baptist Church, King declared that his famous dream had turned into nightmare just a few weeks after he had talked about it at the 1963 March on Washington:
It was when four beautiful, unoffending, innocent Negro girls were murdered in a church in Birmingham, Alabama. I watched that dream turn into a nightmare as I moved through the ghettos of the nation and saw my black brothers and sisters perishing on a lonely island of poverty in the midst of a vast ocean of material prosperity, and saw the nation doing nothing to grapple with the Negroes' problem of poverty. I saw that dream turn into a nightmare as I watched my black brothers and sisters in the midst of anger and understandable outrage, in the midst of their hurt, in the midst of their disappointment, turn to misguided riots to try to solve that problem. I saw that dream turn into a nightmare as I watched the war in Vietnam escalating, and as I saw so-called military advisers, 16,000 strong, turn into fighting soldiers until today over 500,000 American boys are fighting on Asian soil. Yes, I am personally the victim of deferred dreams, of blasted hopes, but in spite of that I close today by saying I still have a dream, because, you know, you can't give up in life. If you lose hope, somehow you lose that vitality that keeps life moving, you lose the courage to be, that quality that helps you go on in spite of all. And so today I still have a dream. (King 1968: 76)

In the above passage, nonviolence challenges Marxism, because there is nothing here for Marxism to refute, but there is also very little that Marxism can claim as its own. The first virtue of Marxism--a virtue that King commended--is the way that issues of injustice are habitually raised for unflinching consideration. As King shifts from dream to nightmare, the prophetic virtue of Marxism is affirmed. The disorders of the world shall be identified and denounced, but there is also a vision to profess with hope.

Of course, the prophetic character of Marxism is not satisfied by any combination of hope and denunciation. The Marxist tradition is founded upon that specific form of evil known as the class conflict caused by capitalism. By the lights of this critique, what usually counts for respectable order is exposed as bloody exploitation, while the alleged criminality of confrontation is re-valued as human liberation. In this spirit we find King overturning the usual calculation that would view urban riots as plain and simple criminality. "Let us say it boldly, that if the total slum violations of law by the white man over the years were calculated and were compared with the lawbreaking of a few days of riots, the hardened criminal would be the white man" (King 1968: 8). The cause of these riots is not to be found in the unruly will of the rioter, but in "the white power structure" that seeks to "keep the walls of segregation and inequality substantially intact" (King 1968: 9). This national crisis in the United States is linked to a global crisis. "The storm is rising against the privileged minority of the earth, from which there is no shelter in isolation and armament. The storm will not abate until a just distribution of the fruits of the earth enables man everywhere to live in dignity and human decency" (King 1968: 17).

King speaks sympathetically of the North Vietnamese struggle for freedom as he denounces the pattern of American military intervention. When King confronts the so-called threat of communism across the globe in 1967, he laments the fact that America (and France) have yielded their indigenous claims to a revolutionary spirit:
It is a sad fact that because of comfort, complacency, a morbid fear of Communism, and our proneness to adjust to injustice, the Western nations that initiated so much of the revolutionary spirit of the modern world have now become the arch-antirevolutionaries. this has driven many to feel that only Marxism has the revolutionary spirit. Therefore, Communism is a judgment against our failure to make democracy real and follow through on the revolutions that we initiated. (King 1968: 33)

We see how King's relationship to Marxism is complex. While he admits that Marxism has seized the revolutionary momentum, he nevertheless appeals for an alternative. This relationship is established very early in King's intellectual life and seems to remain constant throughout.


Which brings us to three features that distinguish King's spirit of revolution: love, pluralism, and nonviolent direct action as mass civil disobedience. None of these is to be found in Marxism.

Let us begin with the ethic of love. It has been amply noted that King's ethic of love springs from a Christian root. But it is also true that King' ethic of love has a root in the psychology of struggle. When King's parents warned him never to let anyone make him stoop so low as to hate, they were warning about the confinement and disfigurement hat hatred brings to the hater. Thus, the love ethic may be justified on the grounds that possibilities open up whenever love is sustained over hatred. Hence, there is a creative art that is affirmed with an ethic of love, but there is also a code of survival. It is surely a paradoxical maxim to fight oppression with love, but King's philosophy of nonviolence concludes that one cannot fight better without it. And I think it is safe to suggest that this lesson from King's nonviolence poses a challenge to Marxist thought.

King's ethic of love also works to prevent the tempting conclusion that whole groups of persons are just the same thing as a counter-revolutionary force (the difference between "the white man" and "all white people" in TOC: 8). By insisting upon love for persons, and their capacity to change, King's logic of nonviolence refuses to countersign orders for murder. One does not stoop to undertake revolution in the name of human liberation, one rises to the occasion with compassion and vision. If the broad tradition of Marxist thought has not in fact condoned terrorism, there is nevertheless a need to recognize how communist theory has played loose with the threat of terror. At any rate, when it comes to an ethic of love, the Marxist tradition must be more instructed than instructive.

Warning: it is King's love which challenges Marxism, because Marxism is still more loving of most people than bourgeoise Christianity.

In more technical terms, King's ethic of love proposes an irrevocable relationship between ends and means. Since justice is not an arrangement among things, but a relationship between human beings, justice depends upon love. There can be no loveless path to justice.

Turning now to King's pluralism, we find truth fragmented into a variety of perspectives. There is no single cause of evil, and there is no single cure. Thus King talked about the triple evils of racism, poverty, and violence; and he talked about coalitions of struggle in which diverse groups could lend their separate aspects of strength. Under this model, one neither anticipates nor builds the vanguard party. King's pluralism directed him to find aspects of value in his opponents, as it also encouraged healthy criticism among allies. In sum, King's pluralism maintains a habit of give and take ("the true meaning and value of compassion and nonviolence" in TOC: 29).

The scholarship of nonviolence, even if pursued from a Marxist perspective, is from the outset guided by principles that are new to the communist tradition. If King had an actual chance to complete his projects, their viability was more enhanced by nonviolence than to King's apparent debt to Marxist analysis. Marxism had been analyzing these questions for many years, but it was the nonviolent innovation that made history. Nonviolence stimulates new dimensions of analysis and sets new methods afoot.

Mass civil disobedience and nonviolent direct action. King's plans for the poor people's campaign and for international reform, both examples found in TOC.

In closing, I want to make the observation in simple and general terms that the devolution of the Soviet Union has brought a crisis to communism that will not be solved without frank and thoroughgoing reconstruction. By the light of historical judgment it appears that the great communist experiment has utterly failed, and that what passed for decades as respectable innovations by Lenin and Stalin no longer enjoy the cover of secrecy which masked the outright butchery of their so-called revolutionary regimes. With Volkogonov's expose of Lenin now in front us, it seems a good time to flee forever from all flirtations with Marxist-Leninist tendencies. Yet we would be wasting too much if we discarded everything. With these considerations in mind, it is a good time for a major reconsideration of Marxism. The great apology awaiting Marxist thought--how it could slip seamlessly into Leninist terror and how it proposes to remedy such tendencies--could well begin here.

Ansbro's section on Marx.
Smith's article on King's Marxist turn.
Trumpet of Conscience.
Stride Toward Freedom.
Strength to Love.
King papers, Vols. I & II
Marx on "Communist tactics in a democracy"
Vokovolgonov's Lenin


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