The Soul of Soulless Conditions:

Marxists on Christianity, Christians on Marxism

Instructor: Dean Dettloff

Term and Year: Fall, 2019 - Online

Participants with diverse learning styles and needs are welcome in this course. In particular, if you have a disability/health consideration that may require accommodations, please feel free to approach me and/or Student Services as soon as possible.

Course Description:

Religious suffering is, at one and the same time, the expression of real suffering and a protest against real suffering. Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions.” --Karl Marx

Although Marxists and Christians have found plenty of reasons to be mutually suspicious, prominent voices in both historical communities explored creative ways of relating to one another, politically and ideologically, throughout the 20th century and beyond. Through dialogical exchanges, party documents, and theological reflection, important questions were raised, if not always solved. Were the first Christians communists? Does materialism disqualify Christians from Marxist analysis? Can Marxist political parties accommodate Christian believers, and how far can Christians go in participating in Marxist revolutions?

Over the course of thirteen classes, we will read several Marxists on Christianity (e.g. Lenin, Luxemburg, Castro, Horkheimer) and several Christians on Marxism (e.g. McCabe, Soelle, West, Zuidervaart) to better understand where these communities found points of agreement and disagreement. Because neither Marxism nor Christianity are entirely unified traditions of thought, the selection of authors will aim to represent at least some of this diversity, although privileging voices that made an effort to bring these two discourses closer together in some way. Reading these traditions together, we will try to uncover how Christianity contributes to the soul of soulless conditions, and also what it might mean to embody that soul in the flesh of political organization.

Reading Schedule*:









Introduction: Syllabus, Key Terms, Intro to Marx, Suggestions, Discussion

Marx, Selections of Karl Marx




Friedrich Engels and Karl Kautsky: Christianity and the History of Class Struggle

Engels, On the History of Early Christianity

Engels, The Peasant War in Germany (ch 2)

Kautsky, selections of Foundations of Christianity





V. I. Lenin and Rosa Luxemburg: Christianity, Communism, and the Party

Lenin: “The Attitude of the Workers’ Party to Religion

Lenin: “Socialism and Religion

Luxemburg: “Socialism and the Churches




K. H. Ting: Christianity in Communist China

Ting, “Is Religion an Opiate?”

Ting, “Religion and Socialism: Can They Coexist?”





Herbert Aptheker: A Marxist Appraisal of Christianity

Aptheker, The Urgency of Marxist-Christian Dialogue (Chs 1, 11; optional 10)





Dorothee Soelle,

Cornel West, and James Cone: Dialogue and Global Theologies

Soelle, “The Christian-Marxist Dialogue of the 1960s”

West, “Religion and the Left”

Cone, “The Black Church and Marxism”





Fidel Castro and Frei Betto: Christianity Between Reaction and Revolution

Betto and Castro, Fidel and Religion, 188-193, 211-239; 246-256 [256-265 optional]





Solentiname: Christian Revolutionaries in Nicaragua

Randall, Christians in the Nicaraguan Revolution, 11-36, 62-80, 110-120




Louis Althusser and Camilo Torres: Class Struggle and the Transformation of the Church

Althusser, “A Matter of Fact”

Torres, “Revolution: Christian Imperative,” “Message to Christians,” “Message to Communists”




Herbert McCabe: The Class Struggle and the Endurance of the Church

McCabe, “The Class Struggle and Christian Love

McCabe, “
Priesthood and Revolution: Where Christianity and Marxism Part Ways




Max Horkheimer and Ernst Bloch: Critical Theory and Religion

Horkheimer, “Theism and Atheism

Bloch, Atheism in Christianity, 48-54; 240-257





Lambert Zuidervaart and Jacob Klapwijk: Reformational Philosophy and Critical Theory

Zuidervaart, “Earth’s Lament

Dettloff, “A Reformational Eco-Socialism?

Zuidervaart, “Foreword,” vii-x.

Klapwijk, “The Myth and the Messianic Light,” 86-98





Conclusion: Key Themes, Emergent Issues, Present and Future

*Readings are subject to change based on dialogue with course participants.

Course Learning Goals

After taking this seminar, participants will acquire a critical understanding of the dialogue between Christians and Marxists, especially where members of each community found points of affinity with one another. Students will be able to:

  1. Contextualize the relationship between Christianity and Marxism in a variety of geographical contexts and ecumenical and political traditions.
  2. Uncover the points of agreement and disagreement between prominent Marxists and Christians.
  3. Contribute to contemporary conversations about Marxism and Christianity, in both academic and activist contexts.
  4. Understand the development of Marxist-Christian dialogue over time.
  5. Complete the course with a final paper or project that helps the student to further explore areas of particular interest, in the context of research and/or daily life.

Course Requirements

a)  Total reading (850 pgs): 412pps for class+reading for course paper or project (a combination of book-length material and articles to go deeper into your specific research topic)

b)  Class Participation:

c)  Reading Response:

d)   Description of course project:

Weighting of Elements to be Evaluated

i.   Class Participation:                                20%

ii.   Reading Journals:                                 20%

iii.   Research Project/Paper:                                60%

Required Readings [Subject to change per participant suggestions.]

Althusser, Louis. “A Matter of Fact” in The Spectre of Hegel. Trans. G. M. Goshgarian. London: Verso, 1997. 185-196.

Aptheker, Herbert. The Urgency of Marxist-Christian Dialogue. New York: Harper & Row, 1970. 

Betto, Frei and Fidel Castro. Fidel and Religion. Trans. Mary Todd. New York: Ocean Press, 2014.

Bloch, Ernst. Atheism in Christianity. Trans. J. T. Swann. London: Verso, 2009.

Cone, James, “The Black Church and Marxism: What Do They Have To Say To Each Other?” An Occasional Paper from The Institute for Democratic Socialism, 1980, 1-13

Dettloff, Dean. “A Reformational Eco-Socialism?Ground Motive. August 11, 2016.

Engels, Friedrich. Selections from On the History of Early Christianity, The Peasant War in Germany.

Horkheimer, Max. “Theism and Atheism” in Critique of Instrumental Reason. Trans. Matthew J. O’Connell. New York: Continuum, 1974. Marxists Internet Archive.

Kautsky, Karl. Selections from Foundations of Christianity. Trans. Henry F. Mins. Russell and Russell, 1953. Marxists Internet Archive.

Klapwijk, Jacob. Dialectic of Enlightenment: Critical Theory and the Messianic Light. Trans. C. L. Yallop and P. M. Yallop. Eugene: Wipf and Stock, 2010.

Lenin, V. I. “The Attitude of the Workers’ Party to Religion” in Lenin Collected Works. Trans. Andrew Rothstein and Bernard Issacs, eds. R. Cymbala, B. Baggins, D. Walters, and K. Goins. Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1973 (Vol. 15, pp. 402-413). Marxists Internet Archive.

_____. “Socialism and Religion” in Lenin Collected Works. Trans. Andrew Rothstein. Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1965 (Vol. 10, pp 83-87).

Luxemburg, Rosa. “Socialism and the Churches,” Trans. Juan Punto. 1905. Luxemburg Internet Archive.

Marx, Karl. Selections from The Communist Manifesto, Critique of the Gotha Program, A Contribution to the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right, The German Ideology, Capital Vol. 1.

McCabe, Herbert. “The Class Struggle and Christian Love,” in God Matters. London: Bloomsbury, 2014. 182-198.

_____. “Priesthood and Revolution: Where Christianity and Marxism Part Ways.Commonweal. December 18, 2018.

Randall, Margaret. Christians in the Nicaraguan Revolution. Vancouver: New Star Books, 1983.

Soelle, Dorothee. “The Christian-Marxist Dialogue of the 1960s.” Monthly Review (July-August, 1984). 20-26.

Ting, K. H. “Is Religion an Opiate?” in God Is Love: Collected Writings of Bishop K. H. Ting. Paris, ON: Cook Communications Ministries International, 2004. 515-525.

_____. “Religion and Socialism: Can They Coexist?” in  God Is Love: Collected Writings of Bishop K. H. Ting. Paris, ON: Cook Communications Ministries International, 2004. 526-543.

Torres, Camilo. Revolutionary Priest: The Complete Writings and Messages of Camilo Torres. Ed. John Gerassi. New York: Vintage Books, 1971.

West, Cornel. “Religion and the Left.” Monthly Review (July-August, 1984). 9-19.

Zuidervaart, Lambert. “Earth’s Lament: Suffering, Hope, and Wisdom.” The Other Journal. Vol. 14, Jan. 2009.

Recommended Readings*:


Goudzwaard, Bob. Capitalism and Progress. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1979.

Kelley, Robin D. G. Hammer and Hoe: Alabama Communists During the Great Depression. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1990.

Löwy, Michael. The War of Gods: Religion and Politics in Latin America. London: Verso, 1996.

Miranda, Jose Porfiro. Marx and the Bible: A Critique of the Philosophy of Oppression. Trans. John Eagleson. Eugene: Wipf and Stock, 2004.

Ruether, Rosemary Radford. Liberation Theology: Human Hope Confronts Christian History and American Power. New York: Paulist Press, 1972.

Soelle, Dorothee. Against the Wind: Memoir of a Radical Christian. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1999.

*There is a mountain of resources to further develop the ideas in this course. If you are looking for specific research or leads, please e-mail me directly.