October 8, 2018

Is Tim Keller a Marxist?

By In Articles, Society and Culture

This is the question that Carl Trueman asks recently at The White Horse Inn. Trueman is responding to reaction that he heard after The New York Times published an op-ed by Keller.

Interestingly, Trueman basically skips over the questions related to Keller’s economics, which, of course, are immensely difficult to nail down. He does this because he prefers instead to answer the question of whether or not Keller is a cultural Marxist. More on this phrase, as applied to Keller, in a later post.

The reason why it is interesting that Trueman skipped over the economic nature of Marxism, which of course is true marxism as Marx himself was not a cultural marxist, is that I believe we have a difficult problem with phrases like Marxism. The right wants to label everyone to the left of them a marxist and modern leftists, who often style themselves as moderates (especially in evangelical circles), would never in a million years adopt such a repulsive label. It’s like asking a proponent of abortion whether they consider themselves genocidists. Who would affirm this?

In this sense, underlying principles and definitions are more important than labels. One could only imagine the passion with which Keller would obviously reject the label.

Now we have another problem. The best analysis of Keller’s economic thought, or at least the social underpinnings of it, comes from a controversial source. This means that it will not be considered fairly; it will not be given any clear-minded reflection. This source quotes in detail not only Keller, but also many of the sources Keller depends upon in his book Every Good Endeavor. It attempts first to define and restate Marx’s economic foundation, using Marx’s own writings, and then explains how these concepts are presupposed in Keller’s book. Is the author of this analysis successful? I think so. But it does not matter; no one will consider this essay.

I think that the reason why this essay will not be considered is not merely because of the source, however. I also think that there is a sheer lack of interest within the Christian community in understanding the basis on which Marx built his thought. The author of the aforementioned essay interacts with Marx’s Theory of Alienation. The alienation theory is basically as follows: “Since wage workers sell their labour power to earn a living, and the capitalist owns the labour process, the product of the workers’ labour is in a very real sense alien to the worker.” In other words, the capitalist unjustly steals what is rightfully owned by the worker. The worker is alienated from his property (since he created it) via the unjust intervention by the capitalist.

Keller writes:

“The great shift from an industrial economy to a knowledge and service economy has improved the immediate working conditions of many but has locked countless others into low-paying service sector jobs that experience the same alienating disconnectedness from the fruits or products of their work.”

Notice that Keller uses the phrase “same alienation.”

Now consider: If Alienation theory is foundational to the Marxist framework of justice, and if Keller interprets the present economy as featuring the “same alienation” (not a different or analogous alienation), why is it such an absurd stretch to connect Marx with Keller?

Marx’s goal was to reconstruct our understanding of the justice of wages. Wages, under Marxist theory, are not reflective of the relationship to specific work done, as such work is valued on the market. Rather, wages are the cost that capitalists must expend in order to keep their production lines operative. After all, Marxists always point out, a dead worker is less productive than one barely kept alive by minimal wage rates.

For anyone interested in understanding how a proponent of the free market would interact with Marx’s wage theory, consider my essay here.

It is by first adopting the alienation theory from Marx that Keller can go on to endorse a “better” model for thinking about the relationship between wages and work. This is where it gets tricky. Instead of quoting and recommending Marx directly (see the third paragraph above), Keller leans heavily on Dorothy Sayers. But Sayers herself seeks to separate the market process from wages, production, and the division of labor. This removal of the price and market mechanism from resource allocation is a product of the thinking of Marx. Sayers:

We should ask of an enterprise, not “will it pay?” but “is it good?”; of a man, not “what does he make?” but “what is his work worth?”; of goods, not “Can we induce people to buy them?” but “are they useful things well made?”; of employment, not “how much a week?” but “will it exercise my faculties to the utmost?” … So long as Society provides the worker with a sufficient return in real wealth to enable him to carry on the work properly, then he has his reward. For his work is the measure of his life, and his satisfaction is found in the fulfillment of his own nature, and in contemplation of the perfection of his work.

The logic, therefore, is this:

Dorothy Sayers adopts a Marxist framework in her expression of ideas relating to work and wages. Keller, at least (from my counting) 15 times endorses Sayers’ expression of ideas relating to work and wages. Therefore, Keller endorses (at least key components of) the Marxist framework.

The “gotcha” maneuvering to save Keller from the label, quite obviously, is that Keller disagrees with Marx on other issues. Naturally. But no one has ever, to my knowledge, sought to argue that Kellerite social thought is holistically synonymous with Marx’s thought; no, the proper and fair summary of the dissenting position from Keller is that he rests much of his theories of justice on the “same” grounds as does Marx.

At the very least, the question deserves a deeper dive into the problem. But if Keller can get away with merely pronouncing his disagreement with the label and a refusal to get into the weeds on terminology, presumptions, definitions, and other aspects of economic theory, why is the case regarding Keller’s Marxism so outlandish?

Heaven knows Keller hasn’t interacted with Bohm-Bawerk’s tremendous obliteration of Marxist First Principles. What is Keller’s opinion regarding Subjective Marginal Utility Theory as the key historical solution to the trap Marx leveraged against the Labor Theory proponents in 18th century Britain?

Now, I don’t hold it against Keller that he has not taken the time to meander through the three volume Capital and Interest, which was the first systematic treatise to, among a vast number of other things, lay waste to Marxian capital, wage, and value theory. After all, economics is a unique and niche discipline and Keller is focused elsewhere. But perhaps it is precisely because he hasn’t taken the time to study these matters that he does not recognize the similarities between his foundations and Marx’s. Or at the very least, recognize that he unwittingly stumbled accidentally into similar conclusions as Marxians precisely because he does not recognize the distinction between Marx’s assumptions and Bohm-Bawerk’s?

I have yet to make a full case regarding my entire position on Keller’s Marxism. But I do think it should be accepted that it is not an outlandish debate. And the fact that Trueman almost immediately focuses on cultural Marxism, so called, instead of economics is a sign that there is a severe lack of Christian interest in the history of economic thought. For now, and until I can muster the energy to master the subject of Kellerite economics, I am certainly confident in saying that there are quite a number of similarities between the attempts of Keller and self-professed Neo-Marxists to overcome what they see to be inherent problems in a capitalist free market wage system. Whether the similarities are enough, and there never is an objective line on these matters, to constitute the label of Marxism remains to be argued fully on this site. But for the record, the essay I mentioned above, seems to me to be a very solid case.

Before moving on, one more comment: someone on Twitter sarcastically dismissed the Unspeakable Essay by stating something to the effect of, “wow so Keller is a Marxist simply because he quotes Robert Bellah? I guess there’s a lot of Marxists in the world in that case!!”

Indeed, devastatingly for the prospects of liberty, prosperity, and true justice, there are many Marxists– and it seems to be growing daily. But the claim that Keller is a Marxist is not based on the fact that he quoted someone who happened to like Marx in some ways. The claim is that, in quoting Bellah in very specific areas of economics and in demonstrable connection to the thinking of Marx, Keller was endorsing “Marxistic” tendencies. That is to say, perhaps the defenders of Keller should exercise the same benefit of the doubt to writers they disagree with as they demand of their opponents.

Finally, Trueman addresses the question head on: “Is Tim Keller a Marxist in how he defines these things?”

His answer, as has been anticipated briefly above, makes zero reference to economics:

“While I have not had the pleasure of asking him personally, I have read statements by him that indicate he believes human beings are made in the image of God. That presumably grounds his ethics. It also places him outside of the Marxist camp, belief in God being somewhat problematic in that school of thought, as (incidentally) is his Christian belief that human beings have a nature which can be defined in metaphysical, rather than contingent, historical terms.”

Has anyone called Keller a Marxist because he adheres to Marx’s dialectical materialism? His doctrine of historical inevitability? His evolutionary biology?

Thus, while technically freeing Keller from the accusation that he preaches the eschatology and metaphysics of Karl Marx is entirely besides any relevant point of the difficulty facing the evangelical world in the person of Tim Keller, it is almost shocking. Is Trueman not a Calvinist because there are areas in which he dissents from John Calvin?

As always, more to come.

Written by C.Jay Engel

Editor and creator of The Reformed Libertarian. Living in Northern California with his wife, he writes on everything from politics to theology and from culture to economic theory. You can send an email to reformedlibertarian@gmail.com