Today is Martin Luther King Jr. Day in the United States, but the civil rights leader is a figure of worldwide significance. He learned the principles of non-violence from those resisting the British empire, received the Nobel Peace Prize in Stockholm, and is one of the “twentieth century martyrs” whose statue sits atop the great west door of Westminster Cathedral (alongside Maximilian Kolbe, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, and others). And 50 years after his death, his moral crusade for equal treatment under the law continues to inspire idealists across the globe.
Just months after the 100th anniversary of the Bolshevik Revolution, it is worth remembering that King explicitly denounced Communism.
“During the Christmas holidays of 1949 I decided to spend my spare time reading Karl Marx to try to understand the appeal of communism for many people. For the first time I carefully scrutinized Das Kapital and The Communist Manifesto,” he wrote. “I also read some interpretative works on the thinking of Marx and Lenin. In reading such Communist writings I drew certain conclusions that have remained with me as convictions to this day.”
Then King listed the three reasons he could never accept Marxism.
“First, I rejected their materialistic interpretation of history. Communism, avowedly secularistic and materialistic, has no place for God,” he wrote.
Marx’s theory of “dialectical materialism” (and the conjoined theory of “historical materialism”) instead envisioned the human race as a one-dimensional economic creature.
“Second, I strongly disagreed with communism’s ethical relativism. Since for the Communist there is no divine government, no absolute moral order, there are no fixed, immutable principles; consequently almost anything – force, violence murder, lying – is a justifiable means to the ‘millennial’ end,” he wrote.
The second point, closely related to the first, recognizes that anyone who rejects transcendence and revelation must, by extension, deny any universally binding morality. The world then becomes a patchwork of competing moralities, begging the strong to impose their will upon the weak. King consistently disowned those who spoke of prevailing in their political cause “by any means necessary.”
“Third, I opposed communism’s political totalitarianism. In communism, the individual ends up in subjection to the state. … And if man’s so-called rights and liberties stand in the way of that end, they are simply swept aside,” King wrote. “His liberties of expression, his freedom to vote, his freedom to listen to what news he likes or to choose his books are all restricted.”
“Man becomes hardly more, in communism, than a depersonalized cog in the turning wheel of the state,” King concluded.
Totalitarianism denied the human race its inherent dignity – precisely as King and the SCLC sought to extend it to all people equally, he wrote in his 1957 book, Stride Toward Freedom: The Montgomery Story. (You can read the full section here.)
None of this should imply that King supported laissez-faire economics. King swam within the intellectual currents of his time, which were overwhelmingly statist and interventionist. He favored what would today be known as a universal basic income – as did contemporaries as varied as John Kenneth Galbraith, Richard Nixon, and Milton Friedman. (More about this in a subsequent post.)
Aside from his faith-based objections, King’s most significant rebuttal to Marxist thought came in his impassioned plea to judge all people “not by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.” All forms of Marxism identifies the human person with an ancillary characteristic: This always includes class, but often also race and sex. Each of these groups are considered immutable, impermeable, and irreconcilably in conflict with one another. They cannot mediate their differences, understand one another, or share the common insights of reason and revelation about their common situation. Indeed, they have no common situation.
They can only fight until the “inevitable” triumph of communism, when the gargantuan state erected by the proletariat miraculously withers away.
Carrying Martin Luther King Jr.’s message into the twenty-first century demands that faith in God and human dignity overcome materialism, ethical relativism, and identity politics in all it forms.
Nearly a half-century after his death, that struggle continues.