When I talk about the marketplace in non-Christian circles, I often have to do preliminary work to persuade my interlocutors that Jesus has any relevance to the conversation. For the most part, I don’t experience this scepticism as hostile. It feels more like having to rouse someone from a slumber; the consciousness of Jesus’s words on money has somehow slipped away from them. When I talk about Marx within the church I often find myself in the same position. Christian engagement with Marx and Marxism has been extensive and fertile in the past, but today its relevance is not directly realized.

Of course, just as some political and economic schools of thought are outright antagonistic to what Jesus has to say about wealth, in some parts of the church the propriety of learning from Marx is actively rejected. The prominent American Catholic cultural commentator Bill Donohue might be an example of this. He claimed recently that “given Obama’s ideology, perhaps it would make more sense for him to swear on Das Kapital.”1 From across the Atlantic it is hard to identify anything remotely Marxist about the American president’s policies, but one gets the impression that Donohue believes that any hint of Marxist philosophy augurs the downfall of decent society.

There are other more substantial reasons for suspecting that Karl Marx has nothing to offer Christians. Many of my peers in ministry spent their early lives in countries behind the Iron Curtain under the shadow of Marxist-inspired persecution. There is a path from Das Kapital to those Catholic families in northern Slovakia who hid their Sacred Heart pictures and crucifixes whenever neighbors came to visit, lest they be secret informers. That path is long and torturous and it must be remembered. For many people from central and eastern Europe, Marx is not a voice to whom they would rapidly turn when considering Christian ethics.

So let us acknowledge that there are plenty of reasons, both good and bad, for why we would be suspicious of Marx. Yet I believe there is much that he has to teach us in the church. Marx’s relationship to Christianity is arguable, but he was far less antagonistic to religion than many give him credit for. When we read his work alongside Luke or Isaiah, we begin to see how his passion for justice and for the marginalized harmonizes with orthodox Christianity.

Human rights are one area where a dialogue with Marx could prove fruitful, particularly in relation to how we speak and think of those rights. The language of rights is the dominant framework for ethical discourse in contemporary Western societies, and yet because of the way we play with words, repurposing them to fit our own contexts, we have a tendency to dilute the language of rights until we cannot help but speak in cliché. For example, when Tony Blair was under political pressure for vacationing in Tuscany instead of Cornwall, he claimed that “everyone had a fundamental right to choose their holiday destination.”2

As a tool for combatting slavery and human trafficking, human rights language is essential. Much of our social activism within the church relies on the legal and intellectual force it provides. One of the most articulate defenders of human rights is Vinoth Ramachandra. He sees rights language as one of the few means that people in the developing world can draw upon to achieve global equity. He maintains that “a rigorous argument for human rights (as in a Christian theological perspective) will radically expose the hypocrisies and double standards of those powerful nations whose domestic and foreign policies run counter to their lip service to universal norms.”3

Yet what are we to do when such rights language itself becomes hypocritical? How do we respond when rights language serves as a mantra for politicians who merely use it to wriggle out of tight situations? What would a careful and critical Christian appropriation of rights language look like? Marx may be able to help.

Marx and Human Rights

Marx’s early essay “On the Jewish Question” is a response to his former friend and ally Bruno Bauer, who suggested that political emancipation should not be extended to German Jews. In the course of that argument, Marx writes,

Not one of the so-called rights of man goes beyond egoistic man, man as a member of civil society, namely an individual withdrawn into himself, his private interest and his private desires and separated from the community.4

In context, Marx is picking a fight with the bold assertions seen in the founding document of the French Republic, the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen. Marx argues that rights too easily abstract a person out of the community that constitutes their actual reality. When personhood is imagined in such terms, it tends toward self-interest. This is the “egoistic man” that Marx argues is created by human rights.

The philosopher George Brenkert exegetes this argument by explaining that rights cannot have merit until they “rest upon a basis which is not simply an abstraction we conceptually make, but a feature (albeit abstract) of humans which plays a concrete role in the (productive) life of a society.”5 For Marx, then, rights talk is rhetoric. Until it is grounded in material conditions, he urges us to be suspicious.

Marx not only targets France’s Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen; he is suspicious of any description of rights that does not arise from the human context and that does not work toward liberation. The very thing that so many in our day find refreshing about human rights—its aspirational vision for moral progress—is the thing that turns Marx off on the concept. Upendra Baxi has described how documents like the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights or the texts associated with revolutionary France and the United States functioned as means of progress: “They pave pathways for aspirational statement to become fully fledged normative instruments.”6 Simultaneously, the states described in these texts are represented as universal and perpetual, for example, when they state that “We hold these truths to be self-evident.” That tension between aspiration and realization is the basis of Marx’s suspicion.

Later in “On the Jewish Question,” Marx writes the following:

But the perfection of the idealism of the state was at the same time the perfection of the materialism of civil society. The shaking-off of the political yoke was at the same time the shaking off of the bonds which had held in check the egoistic spirit of civil society. Political emancipation was at the same time the emancipation of civil society from politics, from even the appearance of a universal content.7

What Marx is suggesting is that rights are a means by which a distinct realm of civil society can be separated from politics. As modern humans came to enjoy political emancipation and the freedom to own things, they became enslaved in this “civic society” where there is no goal, purpose, or reference higher than their private interests. The egoistic spirit of civil society is now bound by nothing but the passions of the individual. To use Terry Eagleton’s lovely phrase, Marx is “rather chary of the notion of rights”8 because rights reduce the idea of a person down to the abridged concept of the individual.

In his unfinished political economy, Grundrisse, Marx writes of how different societies have developed different anthropological understandings. By remembering this, the way in which human rights thinking relies on specific social arrangements to conceive of a solitary individual is revealed. If social arrangements are integral to the entire endeavour, then human rights cannot be essentialized:

The more deeply we go back into history, the more does the individual, and hence also the producing individual, appear as dependent, as belonging to a greater whole: in a still quite natural way in the family and in the family expanded into the clan; then later in the various forms of communal society arising out of the antitheses and fusions of the clans.9

Until the modern era, human rights would have been inconceivable because the shared anthropological vision—what we think it means to be a person—was inextricably tied to our roles and relations with other people. We like to think of human rights as a great moral achievement but Marx fears that in stripping us of the rich layers of our social context, they are a moral retreat.

Marx disputes that a person can be defined as independent, without reference to others. This is the core reason that he suspects rights to be bogus. The material conditions of our personhood are and remain social. Rights language, when it is embraced uncritically, obscures this reality. The language of rights is like a Trojan horse. We see rights as the gift of political emancipation, but this language actually alienates us from the connections that make us who we are.

Marx maintains, then, that rights are, in part, a bourgeois device to establish and sustain bourgeois freedom to control wealth. The American Bill of Rights or the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights or the Irish Proclamation of Independence—Marx would train us to see the power that is represented behind these documents that have such an instinctive grip on us.

For Marx, “the characters who appear on the economic stage are but the personifications of the economic relations that exist between them.” To demonstrate this, he turns his attention to the difference between his modern industrial age and ancient Greece. “Greek society was founded upon slavery, and had, therefore, for its natural basis the inequality of men and of their labour-powers.” Capitalism, however, envisions that “all kinds of labour are equal and equivalent.”10 Labor between a slave and a master is simply incommensurable, whereas labor between an artisan and a peasant can be compared, and therefore, it can be valued and commodified. The social settings of different historical periods are inextricably connected to their economic relations, and hence, the social phenomenon of rights language must be seen as shaped by specific social and economic settings.

Capitalist societies may give rise to wage slavery, but it would be self-contradictory for capitalism to embrace full-on slavery as the Greeks did; the comparative valuation of labor upon which the marketplace rests would be undone. Rights are the product of societies that imagine labor and the laborer in a certain fashion. For Marx, then, rights do not emerge as inalienable properties intrinsic to man. How can they be, when different historical contexts give rise to very different understandings of what is intrinsic to a person?

Marx sees this contingency of rights most clearly in property rights. Capitalism requires that we respect each other’s possessions. If the stronger could plunder the weaker, trade would dwindle. To prevent the appropriation of another person’s possessions by force, we “recognise one another reciprocally as proprietors, as persons whose will penetrates their commodities.”11 The social structure we call rights arises out of a need to lubricate property exchange.

The end product of all his reflection on the historical contingency of social structures is that Marx suspects that rights are exhilarating promises that will never be realized, promises that are perhaps designed to never be realized. Fundamentally, they are social constructs that emerge to support the conditions which capitalism must assume. The problem with rights lies in the way that they strip a realistic vision of what it means to be a person to nothing but a reductionist description of an individual. We become citizens, which in Marx’s view, was a fancy title to appease the laborer. Perhaps in our day of globalized capitalism, citizen is a fancy title to appease us, the consumers?

How Marx Can Help Us with Rights

So how can Marx be helpful to Christians? Marx’s account of human rights saves us from swallowing the myth that human rights are inalienable. We can quibble with, quarrel over, or outright reject Marx’s claim that these rights arise as a result of property exchange. Yet it is hard to imagine, having considered his straightforward comparison of two vastly different historical eras, that we would deny that rights are contingent on social conditions.

This is profoundly helpful because many of the most contentious rights-language debates around the world are obscured by a naive view of rights. When we consider gun laws in the United States, the ongoing discussions in Ireland about abortion, or the attempts in Uganda to entrench legislation that criminalizes homosexuality, we are saved from a certain kind of pitched battle if we remember, from Marx, that our concepts of rights are not divine dictates. They are not set in stone for all time. They are crafted as agreements by certain people in certain places at certain times. As such they can be negotiated. In fact, they can only ever be negotiable.

Marx’s scepticism about rights doesn’t dictate a position we must take on those or any other questions. His skepticism can help us to empathize with the person who holds an opposing view. The gun enthusiast is no longer someone stubbornly blind to self-evident truths but a person with commitments and convictions that arise out of communities.

But Marx’s skepticism resonates on an even deeper level. The nuts and bolts of how he argues for the contingency of rights is a description of what it has meant to be a person in differing times from his own. When Marx rebels against property rights, it is not out of some begrudging resentment that some people have more than others. Rather, he finds something repulsively unjust in the way we can compress the complexity of being human down to some rights we can claim or some property we can own. This is a stance that provokes deep theological echoes.

Joan Lockwood O’Donovan is one of the sharpest theological critics of rights language. She warns that “theologians are frequently engaged in a naive and facile appropriation of the language of rights.”12 Lockwood O’Donovan fears that we jump too quickly from a doctrine of imago Dei to an embrace of the political language of human rights and that much is lost (or perhaps more precisely, imported) when this language takes center stage.

Lockwood O’Donovan reminds us of a time before rights when “the reciprocity of obligation between the monarch and his subjects [was] rooted in their mutual subordination to divine, natural, and ancient customary laws.”13 She also sees rights as a contingent product of a particular culture and recognizes that our embrace of them means a relinquishing of a certain communal understanding of what it means to be human. Thus Marx, perhaps much to Bill Donohue’s surprise, is an ally of some of the most thoughtful Christian ethicists working today.

What Marx does is provide us with a critique of human rights that mirrors a certain reticence to embrace human-rights language that has been articulated by such Christian thinkers as Lockwood O’Donovan, her husband Oliver, Stanley Hauerwas, and others. We cannot embrace his critique wholesale for it rests on materialistic assumptions that we do not share. Yet his insistence that human rights claims are not eternal, and indeed, that they may not even be about rights at all reminds us that things don’t have to stay the way they are.

Marx demonstrates the contingency of rights by comparing his contemporary situation with the past, with societies wildly different from his own. He does this because he is convinced that the future need not be “a larger edition of the present.”14 Likewise, Christianity is a movement that insists that the established order of things is invariably permeable, inevitably subject to change. Marx’s skepticism about rights is not grounds for some general iconoclasm of the entire concept. Yet the guarded appropriation of his wisdom in this domain frees us to hold the idea of rights looser than our contemporary age may be inclined.

Remembering Marx’s warnings breaks rights talk out of a fundamental intensity granted to it when those rights are imagined to be inalienable and sacred. On the contrary, they shift. They evolve. They move in conjunction with the societies that enshrine them. Into such a tentative space, the virtue-forming communities called churches are called to humble dialogue. Into such a tentative space, Christians can speak with grace.


1. “Should Obama Swear on Das Kapital?,” Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights Press Release, accessed January 18, 2013,

2. Blair quoted in Julian Rivers, “Human Rights—A Critical Appropriation,” Lion and Lamb 26 (2000):

3. Ramachandra, Subverting Global Myths (London, UK: SPCK, 2008), 125.

4. Marx, “On the Jewish Question,” in Karl Marx: Early Writings (London, UK: Penguin, 1977), 230. “On the Jewish Question” and indeed all of Marx’s works that I cite here are available (in different translations) on the Marxist website: All passages from Marx’s works used in this article utilize British spellings.

5. Brenkert, “Marx and Human Rights,” Journal of the History of Philosophy 24 (1986): 58.

6. Baxi, “Human Rights in an Era of Hyper-Globalisation,” in The Cambridge Companion to Human Rights Law, ed. Conor Gearty and Costas Douzinas (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2012), 156.

7. Marx, “On the Jewish Question,” 233.

8. Eagleton, Why Marx Was Right (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2011), 104.

9. Marx, Grundrisse (London, UK: Penguin, 1973), 84.

10. Marx, Capital (London, UK: J. M. Dent & Sons, 1974), 60, 31, and 31.

11. Marx, Grundrisse, 243.

12. Lockwood O’Donovan, “Historical Prolegomena to a Theological Review of ‘Human Rights,’” Studies in Christian Ethics 9 (1996): 53 and 61.

13. Ibid., 61.

14. Alasdair MacIntyre, Marxism and Christianity (London, UK: Duckworth, 1995), 142.