We’re All Marxists Now

So I’m a Marxist. You probably are too. If you don’t believe me, check out my latest essay in The Wall Street Journal.

I hope this doesn’t mean I have to don a Che t-shirt and start anointing myself with patchouli oil. I don’t even know where one buys patchouli. And Che was a twit.


  1. Gray

    Excellent article…

    Among the many good things that my dad taught me was that life was short, work was necessary and you need to love what you do. When you do that you are happier at home and at work and ultimately life.

  2. EconJeff

    Before giving into Marxism and throwing out religion, I recommend reading Martin Luther’s writings on vocation. Gene Veith has a written number of books on with those concepts.

    And if you still want to throw out religion, you can always go with Ayn Rand. “The Fountainhead” or “Atlas Shrugged” are perennial favorites and are largely not about greed, in my view, but about being the best at what you do.

    Of course, much of Any Rand’s philosophy is more of the “greed is good” flavor, but it still tastes better than the “state knows what is good” flavor!

  3. The Wingnut

    Great read!

    I too, hope that we don’t now have to find patchouli. I can’t stand the scent.

    And furthermore, I don’t think I look good in those weird military patrol caps that all these “indie revolutionists” wear.


  4. Ross Anderson

    I have been an enthusiastic reader of the WSJ for some time, but your piece today was among the very best–great thinking, great wit, great charm, and yes, understated but deep feeling.

    But I think maybe now you should give up your job and perhaps look for employment at Home Depot or some such because probably you will never write anything better.

  5. Peter Nelson

    Dear Tony,

    Love! your work; always amusing and occasionally even thought provoking. As the father of two under two (with a 3rd on the way) and the recent purchaser of a 17-acre hobby farm, you can see how I would naturally sympathize. For the sake of me and you and the 15 other American men in our shoes, keep it up.

    But as for this Marxist angle, I can only hope you were just taking artistic license for a shot at the WSJ. Otherwise I cannot imagine how you could possibly be so utterly clueless regarding the Catholic (a billion members and growing) teaching on work.

    The Catholic Catechism’s paragraph on work (found by looking in the index under ‘work’) reads: “The primordial value of labor stems from man himself, its author and beneficiary. By means of his labor man participates in the work of creation. Work united to Christ can be redemptive.”

    Or simply consider the Benedictine order, whose motto for the last 1500 years has been, “Laborare est orare”. To work is to pray.

    Your Loyal Fan,
    Peter Nelson

  6. John

    Yes, as someone noted above, Ayn Rand is the obvious missing link in this article. No one is more articulate about the inherent value of labor than Rand.

  7. WSJ Guy

    I find your article contemptible. You play yourself out to be an altruist while misconstruing the entire human rationale behind work. You explicate Adam Smith’s credo to be that work is purely performed for some pecuniary gain. I feel that it is my duty to correct your view by pointing you that you should not read it in such restrictive terms, but to use it more figuratively.

    The idea of work is accrue some sort of gain, where we can consider the immediately exertion of our energy as an investment and then reap a gain later. I’ll use your example of the house improvement that you enjoyed with your son. Why did you do this? Obviously, there is no monetary gain, which you use to illustrate your own self-effacing modesty. However, I argue that this was done because of your right to private property (the house that you own and the improvements that you make to it) and the benefits you accrue from it i.e. you don’t have to pay a repairman exorbitant sums later if it breaks. I highly doubt that your son considered his participation as some onerous job, so hesitate before you heap approbation upon him. To test my theory, when he reaches adolescence, maybe you should offer the chore again.

    As for Marx, his fault was that he relied too much on the optimism of the individual’s altruism. Why does communism fail? Simply, it doesn’t allow for any personal gain in almost any sense. Basically, it’s spend now, no benefits later.

    If you want to really teach your kids to work, you have to have an incentive system, and maybe you need to be a little more creative if you don’t want to feel like you’re bribing them with money or gifts.

    Finally, why is it your imperative is to make your kids ‘enjoy’ what you call work?

  8. Steve

    Wonderful and witty article. For an excellent explication of the value and virute of labor, I recommend “Laborem Exercens” (On Human Work), the encyclical of John Paul II.

  9. Amy

    Me, to children: Come here, guys, over here. See, look at what a great job you did. Doesn’t the garden look nice now? You should be proud of yourselves. Are you proud that you did such a good job?
    Children (WAY too smart to admit to something that could lead to more work): Um, no… nah, not really. okay, i guess. Can we go play now?

  10. Ken Williams

    May I refer you to the new book, “Prophet Of Innovation” by Thomas K. McCraw. It contains the life story of Joseph Schumpeter, an Austrian economist, banker, teacher etc. who declared Adam Smith and the others mentioned in your WSJ Hi-Ho…articleto be vacant in what generate a passion for the work. I would like to learn about your opinion of Mr. Schumpeter’s life philosophy regarding creation new jobs and financial wealth by providing things and services human beings on this earth require and or want. I completed my 42 year course in commercial banking and one year as an employee at Rice University in Houston, Texas and I have always received physic income from working and assisting others.

  11. Dancia

    I loved your article. Thank you.

    As a working mother of two boys under the age of three and a wife to a wonderful man, I can say that work makes me a better mother and wife. I hope to instill the qualities I value so in my own children

    I believe the Ann Rand’s character Howard Roark embodies most all of the characteristics you wrote about.

  12. Tony

    Thanks everyone for your comments. A few thoughts:

    EconJeff: I didn’t have space to address it in the WSJ piece, but my beef with Luther’s progeny is that they took his noble idea (all work can be holy and important) and transmogrified it into the notion that any mindless, purposeless employment should be endured with a good attitude. Thanks for the Veith recommendation. Have you checked out Bill Placher’s compilation on theological approaches to work, Callings? Worth a look.

    Peter: You likewise catch me in the space constraint. You’re absolutely write to cite the Catholic Catechism in rebuttal, just as Steve cites Laborem Exercens. Had I more space, I would quibble with the seemingly blanket approach to all work, i.e., that all is sanctifying regardless of content. But you’re dead on that each is proof that the Church does, in fact, have something edifying to say about the inherent value of work.

    All of you who cited Rand are correct, but I’m dead set against letting anyone under the age of 30 read her. I mean, have you met a 20 year-old Objectivist? (shiver)

    Ken: Thank you for the McGraw recommendation, which I’ll check out.

    WSJ Guy: Thanks for the feedback. But it seems your second paragraph makes my point. Your fourth paragraph seems a sophisticated way of saying: “Huh-unh.” Your final sentence has the answer self-obviously embedded in the question. And your first sentence is hardly crafted to get anyone to consider the rest of what you have to say with a shred of open-mindedness. But kisses all the same.

  13. John Pisarkiewicz

    Tony: Great article. You might also want to check out “Laborem Exercens”, a 1981 encyclical by John Paul II; it condems situations in which a worker’s dignity and rights are violated. This encyclical was published on the 90th anniversary of “Rerum Novarum”, an encyclical by Leo XIII (1891). The latter dealth with the rights and duties of capital and of labor; it also condemned the Marxist view of no privately held property. Both of these documents are available at http://www.vatican.va, under archives.
    Also, see “Dignity At Work”, a book dedicated to Pehr G. Gyllenhammar, (Streiffert, 1985); this book, edited by Bo Ekman, is a collection of essays by experts from a variety of disciplines. Have fun.

  14. stoolpigeon

    Some of the best words written about work, and enjoying work can be found in Anna Karenina. As Levin works, he finds true peace in contrast to his other aristocrat friends.

    “The longer Levin mowed, the oftener he felt the moments of unconsciousness in which it seemed that the scythe was mowing by itself, a body full of life and consciousness of its own, and as though by magic, without thinking of it, the work turned out regular and precise by itself. These were the most blissful moments” Book III Chapter 5

  15. stephanie Taylor

    My father was a small businessman. I started working for him as a small child, doing various jobs from inventory to waitress. As an upper middle class kid, I learned to deal with all sorts of people, and had a great comprehension about what my dad was like as a person, and as a humanitarian.

    So I married the same kind of guy, and all three of our kids have worked in his restaurant and whoops, we disobeyed labor laws. While none of these kids excelled in obvious ways in school, all three have proved to be exceptional- one business major and two architects.

    Legal age for working should be lowered, and yes, more opportunities should be offered for vocational training. But shame on school systems that make convenient judgments about children and their potential.

  16. steven morris

    Tony- Your article was right on the money. It’s amazing how so many people waste time with all the current New Age crap as they search for answers about themeslves and the world they live in when they could become solidly based with an appreciation of some very basic values.

    Our daughter was born with pretty severe learning disabilities but she grew up in an environment where work, duty and responsibility underpinned everything we did.

    In school, no matter how difficult she found her academic work, our daughter always did the best she could (which is all anyone can ask). Now in her twenties she works two jobs and is punctual, responsible and diligent in what she does. Again, who can ask for more? As a result she’s happy and has an inner resourcefulness that many “normal” people don’t have.

    Many solutions to life’s challenges are really quite simple: work and play with gusto, fulfill ones responsibilities and obligations. Trust in oneself and don’t look to others for evaluating one’s self-worth.

    In other words, keep it simple–and honest.

  17. John Gordon

    Thomas Mellon talks alot about how children learn to enjoy working. His autobiography describes how he was raised on a Pennsylvania farm and got pleasure and pride from working with his parents from an early age.

    He then descibes his efforts at introducing his children to work. Thomas Mellon was a thoughtfull smart man and a good writer.

    Many of his observations of education, work, business and a fathers relationship to his children are still useful today.

    I found Thomas Mellon far more realistic and useful than most of the contemporary child rearing books that I read.

  18. Bruce White

    Great WSJ article. Well-written, enjoyable, insightful. Thank you!

    As you note, many protestants view work as a necessary evil. However, there are many of us in the evangelical camp who believe that work has instrinsic value, apart from the evangelistic opportunities that may exist in the marketplace. I recommend the following two books as examples: “Your Work Matters to God” by Doug Sherman and Williams Hendricks (NavPress – 1990), and “Work & Leisure in Christian Perspective” by Leland Ryken (Multnomah Press – 1987). Hendricks was a graduate of Dallas Theological Seminary and Ryken was a professor at Wheaton College.

  19. WSJ Guy

    Mr. Woodlief,

    Thanks for the kisses despite my rudely and hastily written rebuttal to your article. I can only say that the errors in my response were because I read the article much in the way I crafted my remarks.

    In any case, I think I have a much fonder appreciation for your article after reading through with greater attention. However, I still think I can take issue with what is your primary objective: getting your kids to enjoy doing work.

    You attribute to Marx that one can only enjoy their work if they only can find satisfaction in the final product. I find that very much true. So, in returning to the theme of this article, how do the chores that your children perform turn out to be a satisfying product for them? You end your article with the argument that appreciation for work can be inculcated by a nurturing environment, and I take it that you would also add that it has to be genuine (I can’t imagine that to feign a smile would do the trick).

    Here is how I look at it: just because your kids don’t like doing these specific chores around the house does not mean they detest all work. Do you really think that the laundry will be reduced or the garden hose properly coiled up by persuading them to find their chores meaningful using the principles expounded by Marx? This is where I would chalk one up for Smith. The “ease, liberty, and happiness” must be laid down inevitably in certain situations, but the bright side is that there is equal or greater offsetting reward if you offered one to them. To put it more clearly, Marx and Smith are inextricably linked in our society’s view of work. That are lots of necessary things that should be done that we wish weren’t so, but we can find solace that there is some good to accrue to us. At the same time, it is necessary that we should seek to find work that does give us a great satisfaction that not need be more than the final product. I’m confident that your children will one day find the work they will do without your prodding and I think it’s silly that you might already think them indolent because they do not enjoy their chores now. They’ll one day reach the level of Marx, but it’s not a crime to teach them Smith now.

    Am I still way off the mark?

  20. Peter Campbell

    I read your recent article in The Wall Street Journal about your kids and work. The only sentence that made sense to me was in the last paragraph. In which you said, “maybe I should just shut up…” Great idea. You’re an idiot and I feel sorry for your four boys to have you for a Dad !!!

  21. Tony

    WSJ Guy,
    Thank you for your graceful rejoinder.

    You’re right that not all work will be as obviously fulfilling as crafting something beautiful. I believe (though I hadn’t the space to get into this in the WSJ piece) that this is a worldview matter as much as an incentive matter. I do, after all, plenty of work solely because I am being paid for it, or because it simply has to be done.

    At the same time, being a Christian, I am called (I believe, though many modern pastors don’t adequately reflect this point of view in their sermons) to participate in creation, redemption, and/or protection of God’s order. I don’t believe this has to be grandiose (a mother darning her child’s socks participates in redemption of fallen creation just as a brain surgeon does), but for it to matter to his attitude and soul, of course, the worker has to see his work in such a light.

    That doesn’t mean it must therefore be enjoyable, or that we be willing to do it for free, but I believe it does give us a deeper sense of fulfillment and purpose to understand our work in that light.

    I wouldn’t call that a simple reframing of work, however, because some work does not, I believe, fall into the categories of creation, redemption, or protection. A salesman who markets a product when he knows full well that there is an equal or lower-cost, better alternative on the market, for example. Or the HR functionary who oversees administration of bureaucratic compensation metrics that have little or no connection to an invididual employee’s actual value creation. These are not, I believe, jobs that are creative, redemptive, or protective. The Christian, at least, should reconsider whether he ought to do them (something he won’t hear, most likely, from his pastor). And I believe this applies to the non-Christian as well, because humans are creative creatures, not crafted to be bureaucrats doing purposeless work.

    And between you and me, I don’t think my children are deeply indolent. I did exaggerate just a bit for effect. I’m not a poet, but I do carry the license…

  22. Tony

    Dearest Peter writes, before concluding that I am the idiot:

    “The only sentence that made sense to me was in the last paragraph.”

    Perhaps, Peter, you could find a grown-up nearby to explain it. But in the future, it might be best if you leave these matters to civil, educated people.

  23. Jeff Brokaw

    Tony, I bought the WSJ this morning, for the first time in weeks )though I subscribe to the online version), and I happened upon your article by chance. Very good, as usual. And it was a nice surprise to see your byline on an article I was getting ready to read anyway.

  24. Ron

    Dear Tony,
    Thanks for your article on teaching kids to work. I’m not sure it’s that difficult to find God’s view of work, even if your glimpses into the positions of church leaders shared the “work is cursed” view or shared nothing at all. Scripture is indeed not silent, since the God of scripture invented work. God worked to create and, before the curse, commissioned mankind (His image bearers) to work the garden, and subdue the earth (Gen 1:28, 2:15). Work is not a curse, as John Piper says in chapter 8 of his book “Don’t Waste Your Life,” futility is. We struggle with the “hows and whys” of working. But Jesus Christ became a curse for us in His crucifixion, and that changes (or should change) everything for the Christian. Piper shares several New Testament examples showing God’s view of work for the Christian. Now the Christian is called to work with excellence, because He is excellent, and what gives work meaning in this TGIF/over-the-hump-Wednesday work world is the priceless relationship with the Person that made work in the first place. When that really impacts me, someone else may become attracted to the One who can even transform the workday.


  25. Tony


    Thanks for your thoughtful reply. I appreciate where Piper and the Reformed folks are coming from on this, but my disagreement with him mirrors my disagreement with Billy Graham, Charles Stanley, and others in the Arminian camp. Whereas the latter view work as a venue for evangelism, Piper views work as a means of sanctification (see his essay, “Your Job as Ministry”), such that the actual product of the labor is unimportant. Thus he writes: “God’s revealed will for you (the only will you are responsible to obey) is your sanctification, not your vocation.” Like many modern theologians he is largely indifferent to your work, and charges the disaffected laborer with having a better attitude as a means of getting past the malaise we associate with purposeless, bureaucratic jobs.

    But to be fair, I haven’t read his “Don’t Waste Your Life,” so perhaps he says something entirely different there.

  26. Jeff

    Bravo! I wish there was more space in the WSJ for you to go further on this topic. My wife and I have embraced the idea of meaningful vocation almost intuitively in the past. Our kids grew up hearing their mom as a freelance journalist hammering away on her poor little Mac during naptimes and after bedtimes (as well as my own career that was not as visible in the home bout obvious to them).

    All three as teenagers have embraced work as a habit not to be avoided. It may be for the profit motive in many cases but they work and save and buy nice things nonetheless and we never have to nag them to find a job.

    Also it seems to me that our generation of Boomers are dismissing our parents embrace of retirement defined as golf communities in Scottsdale and exchanging that for meaningful work, either by extending our careers or retooling into new volunteer opportunities, etc. At least that appears to be the trend, something I applaud.

    Thanks for writing this, great insight into a topic not often considered in child-rearing.

  27. Sassenach

    My husband and I are retired military officers; now, we live on a small farm and our daughter has a herd of goats. In order to keep the goats healthy and fed there are many chores that must be performed, often in uncomfortable weather.

    My 100 lb daughter unloads hayracks (see the link under my name), assists does during kidding, and trims hooves (30 goats times 4 hooves — do the math).

    She has learned the satisfaction of doing these things herself and of having a knowledge and skill set. She has also learned that goats don’t care about the philosophical underpinnings of work — they just want clean water, food, and shelter.

  28. Karen

    I read your article after it was linked by Instapundit, and I was so glad that I did. Really a very, very nice piece of work!

    It’s made me think of something I hadn’t before–my husband isn’t satisfied with his job and I’ve been encouraging him to find a place where he’ll be happier. But I see now there’s another reason to seek a happier workplace and that is so that our 8 year old son sees “going to work” as something to look forward to, not dread. Thank you for this insight!

  29. Rich

    You criticized John Adams for refusing to work at the pump, and came to the conclusion that Marx perhaps had the right attitude towards work. From what I’ve read about Marx, though, he never did any real work in his life – instead living off of the money of the people around him. When he spoke about the benefits of work, it was for lesser people than himself. I don’t know much about John Adams, but I imagine that he held a job at one point or another, even if he thought that physical labor was below him.

  30. JohnMc

    Good piece. My only gripe is you give too much credit to Marx. The Church, Dickens, Whitman who all predate Marx were extolling the virtues of work. Work are the grains from which we derive our daily bread. Personally I don’t think you can put a political system on it. Work has survived the Egyptians, the Romans, the Elizabethans and will survive beyond Americans. Just saying.

    As to instilling it in your children. Man that is hard. Having raised 2, daughter and son, its tough. Especially so today. When I was a kid at 10 my first job was a paper route. Those kind of opportunities don’t exist anymore thanks to the lawyers. But what I found that can get the drive going is tapping into the ‘want factor’. Find what they want and give them the chores to earn it.

  31. Ron

    Dear Tony,
    Thanks for your clarification. I guess there are ulterior motives to work for the believer, but they’re really independent of the opinions of Calvin and Arminius. We (and our kids) are called do to everything to God’s glory and not our own 1 Cor. 10:31. Maybe this sounds overly pious or bible thumping.
    The challenge for us dads and husbands is: what do statements like that (or being slowing transformed into the image of Christ)mean in real life and in the real work world? I know my kids wonder, and God says I’m to explain it to them. I think we find after some study and meditation that vocation and sanctification, and even evangelism, are the same.

  32. EconJeff

    I will look up Placher’s work. Thank you for the reference.

    I would agree that Luther’s view hasn’t been put into practice as well as it should have been, but neither has Marx’s. The notion of “vocation” itself connotes higher purpose or something of value. Marx’s concept of “labor” doesn’t quite reach that.

    You may be onto something about Rand being for the older crowds. In a similar vein, before your kids get into Marx, they should be well versed in Smith since Marx is essentially tearing apart (or building on, depending on your view) what Smith layed out.

  33. Gene Veith

    Tony,you’ve got to read my book on Luther’s doctrine of vocation, “God at Work.” (Send me your address and I’ll give you a copy.) What you say about Luther’s progeny exalting purposeless labor misses the point. First of all, we need to find purpose in our labor–which is what your piece in WSJ is all about– and Luther shows us how that can be done: In love and service to our neighbor. But even here vocation goes far beyond what you say it does, and Luther’s view is lots better than that of Karl Marx. (Nor is it the same as Calvin’s, which Max Weber concentrates on, while also distorting it.) I also suspect the “left leaning” theologians you cite approvingly for their views on the creative dimension of work are drawing on Luther rather than Marx.

  34. Tony


    I’d appreciate a conversation, and a free book to boot (I’ll email you my address).

    I think I’m being fair to Luther’s progeny, defined broadly as the Dissenters — though the Lutherans themselves can be a different bunch altogether. I’m anxious to see what modern Lutherans preach about work. I didn’t mention Luther in my WSJ piece because a proper treatment gets complicated quickly. Here’s why:

    When we consider the various Protestant strains that are Luther’s progeny, we find that the vast majority of them seem to take Luther’s modification of calling (to wit, that all occupations can be sanctified), and make it mean that all legal, ethical occupations are sanctified.

    I don’t think Luther would agree. He would note that, as you say, work has value insofar as it is rendered heartily unto the Lord and is done with love and service to one’s neighbor. This was the view held by the Puritans as well (William Perkins is instructive here).

    It’s important to observe here that, as sharper scholars than me have noted, Luther significantly (and perhaps erroneously) modified the meaning of calling into the German vernacular for job. Even if we accept that innovation, we have to acknowledge, I contend, that may modern Protestants, by sloppily translating Luther’s innovative translation, have turned Luther on his head.

    Luther made the content of the common man’s work important. The modern pastor (read Billy Graham, Charles Stanley, John Piper, and many of their lesser satellites) makes the content unimportant. Thus Piper claims that God calls you to sanctification, not vocation. Graham and Stanley stress that work is about evangelism, meanwhile.

    The content of the work thus fades in importance, as these pastors put us back into precisely what Luther challenged in the German Catholic empire, the thinking that only priests are doing important work. The modern Arminians would have you be priests to the lost in your workplace (and primarily value your work for its functioning in that regard), and the modern Calvinists would have you be a priest to yourself in your workplace (valuing work, again, only in that regard). Both lose focus on the actual product of the work.

    What I like about the left-leaning theologians is that they remind us that we are called to participate in God’s creative, redemptive work. This quickly becomes an eschatological argument, as Miroslav Volf notes. If you believe all material things will be wiped away when Jesus comes, then you have little reason to work at creation and redemption. If you believe that God is even now working to build a new heaven and a new earth, and that our good work in this fallen place will have an impact on that redemptive work, then you have to care about the product of your labor.

    I’ll shut up now. I’ve got a longer piece on this I’m trying to get some attention for at Touchstone, so maybe my compressed arguments here will see the light of day in more coherent form.

    Now, feel free to set me straight on what modern Lutheran thinkers are claiming about work.

  35. Rich


    Please pardon my tardiness to this conversation. Have you ever read the essay by Gilbert Meilaender entitled “Friendship and Vocation”? It’s in his book on friendship, and also included in an anthology which I believe is a companion volume to the Placher compilation you mentioned in previous comments. Meilaender comes down rather differently than you and I’d be curious to know what you make of it. Work is part of the created order, but we only know it (for now) in the fallen world, so can it ever be satisfying?

    “Also, What I like about the left-leaning theologians is that they remind us that we are called to participate in God’s creative, redemptive work. . . . If you believe that God is even now working to build a new heaven and a new earth, and that our good work in this fallen place will have an impact on that redemptive work, then you have to care about the product of your labor.”

    If we say that the new heavens and the new earth constitute salvation, at what point do our attempts to “participate in God’s redemptive work” constitute an effort to procure salvation by works? I think there is a real problem here for some articulations of eschatology or theologies of work. What do you think?

    “If you believe all material things will be wiped away when Jesus comes, then you have little reason to work at creation and redemption.”

    I know, I know. You’re right to insist on keeping the material–no resurrection of the body without it–but still, 2 Pet. 3:8ff does seem to describe the fiery destruction of the elements. What should this knowledge lead us to think about our work?

    Also I find it noteworthy that in v13 we read, “But according to his promise we are waiting for new heavens and a new earth in which righteousness dwells.” That waiting must surely be a sanctified waiting, not laziness or abdication, still I can’t help but think that candid theologians of work would prefer to read, “we are working for new heavens and a new earth.” But the promise cannot be that the sweat of Adam’s brow leads us to the promised land.

Comments are closed.