One of the biggest misconceptions about China is that it’s given up on socialism in all but name – that by embracing capitalism, the Communist Party has tossed aside Marx, only invoking his name as lip-service to the CCP’s revolutionary roots. In fact, socialism is still the goal. It’s simply the next step on Marx’s stages of development, which consists of:
Marx devoted a lot of ink to the 4th stage, where he said capitalist oppressors exploit the underclass and use religion as an “opiate” to keep them content with their repression. Eventually when stage 5 arrives, equality will make religion obsolete.
In 1949, China was more-or-less at stage 3. Mao thought he could just make a “Great Leap” to stage 5 by enforcing the tenants of a socialist society with an authoritarian hand. This included wiping out religion. The next 30 years under this policy were unsuccessful to put it mildly.
Eventually though, Deng Xiaoping came to power and acknowledged that stage 4 is kind of important. So along with a capitalist economy, he accepted religion with the expectation that it would gradually die out on its own through the natural progression of Marxism.
Fast forward 33 years to now and China is living through the worst of the capitalist excesses Marx wrote about. Recent stories on Foxconn have illustrated that, in spite of some improvements in recent years, China’s workers still endure conditions deplorable by western standards. Last month, Elizabeth Economy also revealed statistics that show how the land grab epidemic and exploitation of farmers is getting worse. And last week, Bloomberg highlighted China’s mammoth wealth inequality and marriage of money and politics. Their report said that the 70 richest delegates in China’s National People’s Congress have a combined $89.8 billion. This compares to $7.5 billion for all 660 top officials in the U.S. government.
When faced with such problems, there’s one thing people around the world tend to turn to: Prayer. To see an extreme example of the power of faith during times of exploitation, we can look back to American and European slavery. By the time the American Civil War came, the slave population was almost entirely Christian. Masters encouraged this because it gave slaves hope for the next world. With the promise of heavenly reward for hard faithful work, inclinations to seek freedom in Earthly life were subdued.
In one form or another, exploitation continued through the industrial revolution as the lower class created capital that mostly went to the upper class. But then the West eventually reached “development.” Some governments have even stepped in and made healthcare and education universally obtainable, which has helped push down wealth inequality. Several western countries are now moving toward what some might consider socialism through these policies. And a funny thing is happening: Religion is shrinking. Nowhere is this more apparent than in Scandinavia.
Those countries have pushed down wealth inequality to the lowest levels in the world, while per-capita wealth and happiness are among the highest. These countries also now happen to be the least religious.
Marxism is lacking in many areas, but it may not be as discredited as previously thought. Pitzer College sociology associate professor Phil Zuckerman has done research that compares religiosity and societal health. His findings show that countries with higher levels of organic atheism do indeed correlate with better indicators of a healthy society. I asked Zuckerman how this fits with Marx’s theory of religion and development.
“Research does support Marx,” he said, regarding religion. “At least to the extent that we know that societies that are ‘secure’ — people have enough to eat, somewhere to live, access to education, health care, and they live in free, open democracies (unlike China!) — such societies tend to be less religious. Conversely, societies that are poor, chaotic, wracked with warfare, instability, etc. — these societies tend to be more religious.”
Whether it’s Weber’s work ethic, Marx’s opiate, or a little of both, data suggests religion plays a role in developing societies and allowing the accumulation of capital. But then affluence, education and equality largely make the supernatural aspect obsolete. So when talking about morality or social effects, secular countries like China – where atheism has been forced from above – are a world apart from secular countries like Sweden. Sweden may be secular now, but it did develop under a religious moral framework.
Nobody can yet say whether the religious work ethic, moral framework or “opiate” are absolutely necessary for China to develop to the level of Western countries, or if Confucianism will be able to pick up the slack. But the developed club is so far overwhelmingly made up of countries that have gone through periods of majority religious populations.
The Chinese government isn’t blind to this. Many in the still-very-authoritarian Communist Party see the potential for religion and want to guide its development…on their terms. But, as Zuckerman pointed out, China’s capitalism is still missing one key ingredient from Marx’s scheme: Democracy. Tomorrow, we’ll wrap up this series by looking at how that’s affecting the potential of religion in China.
Christianity series Part 1: Can Lei Feng compete with Jesus?
Christianity series Part 2: The new Christians
Christianity series Part 3: Divine economics
Christianity series Part 5: Communist Christianity
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