After his first year as a PhD student at Boston University, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. enrolled in a summer semester during which he completed a course on the ‘history of recent philosophy’ taught by Richard M. Millard. It was in that course that King’s academic engagement with Karl Marx led to the following critique: “that Marx’s attempt to combine the Hegelian methodology with his Kantian motivation” resulted in, what King referred to as, a “flagrant contradiction” in Marx’s thinking. In turn, King argued, Marx’s economic determinism, fueled by the idea that “history is moving inevitably toward the classless society,” was a view that “destroys freedom.” Even if Marx’s “Kantian motivations” otherwise affirm it.
King explained that Marx’s Kantian motivations “[emphasized] the worth of the human personality as a means rather than an end.” Further, King argued Kant “[attempted] to save philosophy from the skepticism which Hume had left it in” before he went on to highlight Hume’s weakness: “his failure to see the creative activity of mind.” Something that Kant, on the other hand, saw clearly.
When King claimed that Marx’s Kantian motivations affirmed freedom in his theories, he was persuaded by Kant’s refusal to abandon the mind’s creative faculties. “Kant agrees with the empiricist in affirming that all knowledge begins with experience,” King began, “but he transcends them by affirming that all knowledge is not derived from experience. Experience only furnishes the bricks, but it is mind the furnishes the cement.”
The theoretical trouble for Marx arose, according to King, when he attempted to “[synthesize] his Kantian motivation with a Hegelian methodology.” Instead of emphasizing the worth of human personality, and the transcendent potential of the creative faculties of the mind, Hegel conceptualized the mind as a “by-product or an effect of matter,” King explained. This “rigid determinism,” argued King, led to an inherent contradiction in Marx’s philosophy and, ultimately, eliminated freedom from the realm of the possible. Marx’s Kantian motivations were thus, to King, rendered invalid.
It is no surprise, then, that a year later King argued that even though communism seeks to “eliminate racial prejudice” and “transcend the superficialities of race and color,” it is materialistic and regards religion “psychologically as mere wishful thinking, intellectually as the product of fear and ignorance, and historically as serving the ends of exploiters.” As a theist whose activism and social justice thrived in symbiosis with his religious work, King found communism’s inherent atheism to be incompatible with Christianity.
Particularly, though, King attributed communism’s inherent atheism to an overarching rigid determinism that left no room for the transcendent potential of the creative faculties of the mind. Not to mention the fact that “force, violence, murder, and lying are all justifiable means” to communist ends. Furthermore, King argued that communism itself has an end: the state. “Communist theory is a temporary reality which is to be eliminated when the classless society emerges,” King wrote, “but it is true that the state is the end while it lasts. Man becomes only a means to that end.”
King went to explain that “if any man’s so called rights or liberties stand in the way of that end, they are simply swept aside. His liberties of press or pulpit expression, his freedom to vote, his freedom to listen to what news he likes or to choose his books and even his friendships are all restricted. Man has to be a servant, dutiful and submissive, of the State, and the state is omnipotent and supreme.” Once again, to King, freedom is removed from the realm of the possible.
King did contend, however, that Christianity, like communism, has its shortcomings. Namely, that the church sanctioned slavery, segregation, and other institutions that directly went against social justice aims.
In many ways, King’s treatment of the relationship between freedom, religion, and social justice contained echoes of Kierkegaard’s treatment of faith and freedom. Both King and Kierkegaard emphasize a duty to God, that is critical of religion as an institution, and suggest that freedom is not bound by, what King referred to as, “patterns of the status quo.”
In that regard, King’s commitment to nonviolence was his expression of freedom. King thought beyond force, violence, and murder and considered other possibilities. Put simply, King’s faith in nonviolence was paradoxical given the omnipresent violence of the world but it was that unwavering faith that highlighted the absurdity of his method.
Finally, King’s nonviolent expression of freedom was, unwittingly, his way of highlighting what he considered to be contradictory elements of Marxism. To King, “Marx’s attempt to combine the Hegelian methodology with his Kantian motivation” resulted in the removal of freedom from the realm of the possible in addition to a limited view of how to achieve the aims of social justice.
CSKC, INP, Coretta Scott King Collection, In Private Hands, Sermon file.
MLKP, MBU, Martin Luther King, Jr., Papers, 1954–1968, Howard Gotlieb Archival Research Center, Boston University, Boston, Mass.