Tuesday, September 12, 2023

Marxism and Buddhism


The two scholars who wrote on the comparisons between Marxism and Buddhism were Dr. B. R. Ambedkar and Dr. Victor Gunasekara of Queensland University Australia. Dr. Ambedkar saw very few similarities between Marxism and Buddhism. In 1956 Dr. Ambedkar stated that the Buddha and Karl Marx made attempts to establish a society where all human beings would be equal and both strive for the same end of a just and happy society.   

Dr. Victor Gunasekara in his scientific article "Marxism in a Buddhist Perspective" states that Marx wrote extensively on religion but not on Buddhism which he did not really encounter. As Dr. Victor Gunasekara points out both Marxism and Buddhism are humanistic philosophies. Both Marxism and Buddhism are philosophies of action. Because of their different perspectives on humanism, the action that Marx recommended is social and political. The Buddha points to a higher ideal and to a more fundamental kind of happiness. 

The Buddha and Marx analyzed human experiences and social problems. Both addressed the vicissitudes of life. Buddha was focused on existential challenges and Marx's focus was economic challenges. Marx does not address human society on an experiential level. Buddha knew that life causes suffering and anguish irrespective of the social context. Marx did not believe in the notion of karma, rebirth, and existential awakening. 

Karl Marx wrote the Communist Manifesto in 1848 explaining how religion affected society and how it was an institution that was not actually necessary to exist. Marx thought that religion was contagious in society. He believed that religion was a tool of the ruling class to maintain power and reproduce inequality. However, Marx had a different opinion about Buddhism.  Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels were able to gather diminutive information about Buddhism via some articles which were published by Nietzsche and Arthur Schopenhauer. Marx considered Buddhism as a philosophy rather than a religion.   

Marx was a staunch opponent of celestial belief and declined the existence of the divine and the spiritual worlds.  A  different interpretation of Marx's atheism is given by Erich Fromm. In his Marx's Concept of Man (1961) Erich Fromm writes: Marx's atheism is the most advanced form of rational mysticism. Marx's atheism is based on rationalism, not mysticism. Similarly, the Buddha did not lay the foundation of his religion either on god, or on soul, or anything supernatural. Buddhism does not appeal to a creator god. The Buddha and Marx deny the existence of an eternal, essential, and absolute soul.  He denied the existence of a divine being or God. Therefore, both Buddhism and Marxism deny the existence of a creator, God, or the existence of an eternal soul. 

Karl Marx understood the basic non-theistic teachings of Buddhism through his friend Karl Koppen - a Young Hegelian who had a profound knowledge of Buddhism. Ironically Marx was not a man of faith, he was a secular humanist. Marx saw how the ruling class used religion as a tool to continue their exploitation of the working class. He thought that religion misinterpreted the true human condition. Marx believed that religion fundamentally misled humanity allowing mass exploitation. He knew that Buddhism was not a theistic religion. Marx respected  Buddhism, and proofs are seen in his 1854 letter.  In his letter to Antoinette Philips, Karl Marx mentioned the Buddhist meditative technique. Marx saw Buddhism as a form of Brahmanical rationalism. Like Friedrich Nietzsche, he must have thought that Buddhism was a nihilistic religion. 

Karl Marx's Das Kapital is a critical analysis of capitalism and its practical economic application. The central driving force of capitalism, according to Marx, was the exploitation and alienation of labor. He believed that  Capitalism was a progressive historical stage that would eventually be followed by socialism. He believed in the dynamics of social change.  The world passes through alternating cycles of evolution and dissolution. According to Buddhism, everything changes in nature and nothing remains static in society. Change and impermanence are the cornerstones of Buddhist teachings. 

Marx believed in human equality. The Buddha was one of the first thinkers in history to teach the doctrine of human equality. For the Buddha, all men are one in that they belong to one species. According to Buddhism, all individuals are equal in the most profound sense. Both were advocates for equality in society and suggested pragmatic ways to transform society. 

Marx showed how economic factors affect society. He indicated how economic factors fully govern social relationships. The Buddha discussed economic concepts and recognized the major economic problems of the state. The Buddha spoke of poverty as being “suffering in the world. The Buddha’s reflection on economics can be identified in the Cakkavatti Sihanada Sutta. 

Marx did not seem to be against democracy. Marx was an advocate for "representative democracy". In the most profound sense, he was a democratic socialist. Buddhism is a democratic system. Buddha encouraged democratic ideas and admired the democracy of the republican Government of Vajis in the state of Kuru. Buddha further mentioned that until Vajis were following their system, they would not be conquered. Buddha believed in freedom and dignity of the individual with equality before the law.

Karl Marx considered capitalism to be a historically specific mode of production in which capital has become the dominant mode of production. He further argues that historical development is significantly shaped by the conflict between social groups or classes over the ownership and control of the means of production and reproduction. Buddhism explains human society like any other phenomenon that changes constantly. The Buddha knew society certainly had its weak links. He knew about the social oppression. The Buddha had a profound view of life and society. The Buddha launched his campaign to change society in a non-violent method. The Buddha's aim was to create a harmonious society by reforming the individual.

Marx was a critique of capitalism and its shortcomings. He saw capitalism as a crucial and decadent economic system.   He advocates oppressed workers to overthrow the owners and take control of the means of production, creating a classless society. In order to achieve this goal he suggests " Revolution"  and justifies violence. Buddha knew that the economic aspect of a community profoundly affects its other aspects. Buddha saw hunger as the most severe of all illnesses.  From a Buddhist economic perspective, work is regarded as a pure mindful activity that brings economic advancement and social harmony.  Buddhist teachings strongly oppose the use of violence. 

Buddha views life in terms of cause and effect. Karl Marx views life in terms of economic connections and for him, human nature is no more than what is made by "social relations". The Buddha analyzes human problems at the most fundamental and mental level. The Buddha in Cakkavattisihanada Sutta states that poverty is the cause of immoral behavior, such as theft, falsehood, violence, hatred, and cruelty, behavior which often results in crime. Buddhism emphasizes that it is the duty of the government to see to the needs of the people and to strive to liquidate poverty.

Marx says man's nature is a totality of needs and drive. He writes about instincts to act in order to satisfy "needs" for external objectives. The Buddha describes natural human drives and cravings. Buddha's teachings offer a grand insight into the nature of reality including practical aspects of mundane life. The Buddha analyzed the human mind and mental phenomena. However, Marx does not go deep into the human mind. 

Buddhism is not opposed to the accumulation of wealth – which is earned in an honest way. Marx is against private capital accumulation. Marx wrote, “Accumulation of wealth at one pole is at the same time accumulation of misery, the agony of toil, slavery, ignorance, brutality, mental degradation, at the opposite pole.” Acquisition of wealth by unlawful means is not accepted in Buddhism.   

Marx emphasized mainly the economic aspects of life. Hence he missed an important dimension of human existence which is the spiritual aspect.  He was more based on scientism. Marx's dialectical philosophy does not speak on inner connection with oneself, others, the universe, nature, and transcendent affairs. He elucidated the meaning and purpose of life, love, respect, peace, compassion, hope, and peace in economic terms. Buddhism is interested in man's spiritual journey. The Buddha focused on achieving a state of inner peace and wisdom.     

Buddhism and Marxism unanimously agree that life is unsatisfactory and it needs remedial measures. The Buddha stated the inherent unsatisfactoriness of life, its pain discontentment, annoyance, restlessness, and suffering. For Buddha, a basic unsatisfactoriness pervades in all forms of existence. Marx stated that under capitalism, people suffer and labor is something inhuman, and dehumanizing. He saw their poor living conditions and their alienation. To end human suffering Buddhism proposed virtous actions with spiritual remedies and Marx emphasized drastic and radical economic changes. 

The Buddha and Marax were geared toward the alleviation of human suffering. Both parties had aims to liberate individuals from a world of pain and suffering. According to Marx capitalism was the aetiology of suffering.  The Buddha highlighted craving or attachment as the root cause of suffering.  The Buddha answered the central problem of human suffering and its ending whereas Marx addressed a limited area of human suffering which is mainly the mundane economic life.  The Buddha's focus was based on the ontological nature of suffering and Marx's focus was its historical construction.  

Marx indicated external forces associated with human suffering, whereas The Buddha highlighted internal forces. Marx wanted to liberate humans from oppressive economic and material situations, whereas The Buddha wanted to liberate humans from their true nature of universal suffering.  Unlike  Buddha  Marx did not emphasize the pervasive existential and ontological nature of suffering. According to Marx human suffering is mainly caused by class exploitation in the capitalistic system. 

In 1844, Marx wrote: "To develop in greater spiritual freedom, a people must break their bondage to their bodily needs.  The Buddha spoke about the awakening of spiritual enhancement and its progress toward spiritual liberation. To end suffering Buddha proposed extinguishing the illusion of self and its attendant desires, cravings, and attachments. The remedy that Marx proposed was the creation of a classless Communist society.    

For Marx liberation was not a mental act. For him, it was an attempt by the masses to expect social transformation. As Marx elucidated human liberation" is an organic whole of proletarian political liberation, economic liberation, and social liberation.  He hardly touches on spiritual liberation. The Buddhist path to liberation is described in the Noble Eightfold Path: right view, right resolve, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness, and right concentration.  

Marx justified using violence to overthrow an economic system of exploitation, but the Buddha renounced violence.  Buddhism dealt with self-conception and  Marx was interested in the social nature of people.  Buddhism has a stable ethical base and s  Marxism lacks a stable ethical base. 

Marx profoundly wrote about a sophisticated political philosophy. The Buddha's political philosophy was rationalistic, humanistic, and democratic. The Buddhist political philosophy is a moral philosophy and it is based on the notion that “human life is precious, endowed with freedom and opportunity. The Buddha highlighted good governance and its virtues. 

Buddhism touches on the deep aspects of the universal human experience, and Marxism touches only on the mundane aspects.  Unlike Buddhism, Marxism has a very shallow experiential level. Marxism is a system of socioeconomic analysis, whereas Buddhism is an analysis of the fact of human suffering and the ultimately dissatisfying character of human life. Marx's emphasis was mainly based on class conflict;conflict between the two most significant social groups: working-class people and the owners of businesses, the capitalist class.  

The Buddha spoke about the internal mental conflicts of an individual rather than society.  Buddhism has profound insights into the human condition. The Buddha expressed the human condition in realistic terms describing its transitory, ephemeral, and fleeting nature. Marx saw human nature that is composed of "tendencies", "drives", "essential powers", and "instincts" to act in order to satisfy "needs" for external objectives.   

Buddha addressed existential challenges and Marx was limited to economic challenges. For Marx, the human potential was limited but for Buddha, the human potential was exceptional and limitless. In evaluating human behavior the Buddha went into depth, but Marx just touched the surface and used dialectical materialism as the philosophy of science. According to Marx, humans are primarily physical, bodily creatures. Buddhism believes that human beings have the potential to achieve supreme growth promotion. 

There is no evidence that Marx and Freud knew each other personally or had a direct influence on one another. However, Marx was familiar with Ivan Pavlv's work as well as he had read Lev Vygotsky and Alexander Luria's writings.  Marx never wrote a full-length treatise on the human psyche. The Buddha analyzed human psychology, emotion, cognition, behavior, and motivation

In Marxian economics, private ownership of the means of production would be replaced by collective ownership, first under socialism and then under communism. In the final stage of human development, social classes and class struggle would no longer exist.  The economy is characterized by collective ownership of capital: property is owned by the State, production levels are determined by the State via advanced planning mechanisms rather than supply and demand, and prices are regulated and controlled. Buddhist economics is based on the right livelihood and it integrates sustainability, equity, and compassion. It's a selfish harmonious effort in group living without any exploitations.

Although Marxism and Buddhism are fundamentally different ideologies there are some common elements in Buddhism and Marxism. We identify the revolutionary spirit of the Buddha and Marx. Both identified maladies associated with human life and both had sincere attempts to make it better.  

(by Ruwan M Jayatunge; Medical Doctor / Author / Associate Professor ) 

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