Buddhism and Marxism

I recently finished my annual re-reading of Alan Watts “The Wisdom of Insecurity” and immediately followed it by starting into E.F. Schumacher’s “Small is Beautiful”. I had not intended it, but it turned out to be a thematically perfect fugue, as both have at there centre a discussion of our relationship with nature. Both posit that we have become disconnected with our environment and that this disconnection is the source of both mental anguish, and consequentially, the physical destruction of our environment and society.

Although not strictly a “Buddhist” book, indeed Watts spends more time specifically discussing and interpreting Christian thought, “Wisdom” is clearly a book based on and influenced by, the Buddha’s outlook. It is a classic example of Watts role as ‘interpreter of Eastern thought’. Watts makes numerous references to our social and environmental condition, and identifies the problem as being our dualistic separation. And whilst Watts is acutely aware of the social problems that manifest as a result, his ‘cure’ is a personal one; if we could realign our viewpoint to see our innate ‘oneness’ with our environment and the futility of search for permanence in an impermanent reality, our ‘problems’ would cease to be. This is as the Buddha taught. Watts does not have much time for ‘political’ solutions (either on the right or the left) and is focused on personal liberation, again similar to most of Buddhist thought throughout history. This has more or less been my ‘political’ outlook recently.

Schumacher sees the world very similarly (indeed, one chapter of his book is entitled “Buddhist Economics”) and draws his conclusions from a similar point that it is our fractured relationship with our Universe that is the root cause of our problems. In contrast to Watts however, Schumacher is much more interested in suggesting socio-political solutions. These are however still grounded in this basic idea that we need to reconsider our position in nature. Although critical of some Marxist thought, Schumacher is clearly coming from a socialist/collectivist perspective, saving most of his ire for capitalism.

This got me thinking specifically about Buddhism and Marxism. Recently the Dalai Lama described himself as “half-Buddhist, half-Marxist”. From one perspective, on the surface, one can definitely draw similarities between both, but soon seemingly irreconcilable differences appear to arise. I am no where near learned enough on either topic to draw any conclusions myself, but I was pleased to come across this accessible but comprehensive comparison. Taking a scholarly approach to both Victor Gunasekara clearly outlines how both ‘philosophies’ overlap and depart.

For me Gunasekara underlines what I had suspected, that they compliment each other more than they disagree. Gunasekara is cautious however:

When we leave the critique of religion and God, where Buddhism and Marxism have something in common, and consider ether aspects, the differences in the two systems begin to emerge. These differences exist and are real; but they should neither be exaggerated nor minimised.

Gunasekara is careful not to overstate, he rather wishes to show, but being less scholarly I can allow myself more room to clumsily interpret to say that both describe:

A world constantly in change.
The Buddha described this as impermanence, Marx referred to the dialectic. Both were aware of this basic fact of the matter; that everything is in constant flux. Gunasekara points out however that Marx described this movement as going ‘towards’ a certain state, whereas Buddhism did not.

The Buddha’s first noble truth is that life for the worldling is essentially unsatisfactory, with pain and anxiety being omnipresent. This ‘pain’ was both sensory (injury, illness, etc.) and mental (anxiety, fear).
Marx too identified both types of pain, the squalid reality that most people live in, and the ‘alienation’ that modern capitalist civilisation has instilled in people. Gunasekara, however, makes clear that Marx traced the root of alienation to man’s relationship to his activity and the fruits of his activity. Marx’s interests mainly lie in the ‘socio-economic’ whilst the Buddha’s was much more Universal.

Gunasekara is careful not to over or understate these differences, and concludes that

Thus though traces of the signata (“Three marks of existence”) could be discerned in Marx’s writings he does not give to them the centrality that they occupy in Buddhism. This coupled with the fact that Marx was interested basically only in one aspect of human activity (the socio-economic) explains why he was not able to draw the full implications of those categories used by him which have some relation to the signata of Buddhism.


Gunasekara also takes on what has always been a particular obstacle for me, the issue of materialism. In many ways, materialism is a problematic term as it has numerous interpretations. In much day-to-day usage ‘materialism’ is used to refer to a love of ‘things’ and objects, such as clothes, cars, iPhones. It can also be used to differentiate a ‘scientific’ view of reality as opposed to say a more ‘mystical’ or ‘spiritual’ one. Watts, interestingly, argues that what many would call a ‘materialist’, one who wants for ownership of riches etc, is nothing of the sort as they do not ‘love’ the material of nature. A mystic, it could be argued, is a true ‘materialist’.

Buddhism is commonly understood to be a non-materialist or even anti-materialist doctrine, stressing the illusory nature of reality and the ‘dream-like’ existence of the Universe. Marx spoke of ‘historical materialism’ and thus I have always struggled to reconcile the two at this point. Gunasekara, however, considers what Marx meant by this term.

The first thing to note is that “materialism” as propounded by Marx and Engels is not the same as that which is usually denounced by religionists. Thus Robert C. Tucker has observed: “In Marx’s mind the ancient philosophical terms idealism and materialism have taken on unique new meanings…. To begin with by materialism he does not mean this term what we are accustomed to mean when we use it in philosophical discourse. It does not have a physical or mechanical or physiological connotation, nor does it question the reality of conscious mind. It does not refer to a theory about the stuff of which the universe is composed, although Marx assumes that this is material stuff”

Thus it is easier then to consider Marx’s ‘materialism’ within a Buddhist framework. Marx was not particularly referring to a description of the make up of reality, but rather a description of reality was we see it. Gunasekara also notes:

In the more prosaic sense of materialism as a view affirming the importance of worldly goods for human welfare one may make a case for an opposition between Buddhism and Marxism. But even here it must be remembered that Buddhism argues for a “middle way” for both monk and layman, given the demands of their respective life styles. Marx himself considered that “accumulation for the sake of accumulation” was a characteristic of capitalism, and that in his ideal communist state the distributive rule would be “to each according to his/her need”. So even here some reconciliation may be possible . (In passing it may be stated that the Sangha of the Buddha was perhaps the world’s first communist social grouping.)

Gunasekara also considers how both doctrines consider man’s thought process, and identifies that apparent oppositions (For Marx the environment creates his consciousness – whilst for the Buddha “Phenomena are preceded by the heart, ruled by the heart, made of the heart.” or “We are what we think. All that we are arises with our thoughts. With our thoughts we make the world.” – the primacy of mind is stressed) Whilst this appears to show a complete contradiction between the two, Gunasekara notes that the Buddhist idea stems from an interpretation of the opening line of the Dhammapada that can be considered “Mind precedes all mental states.” – not so much that our mind conditions the world (indeed, Buddhism ultimately refutes a mind-world duality making it a less clear distinction in the end), but our mind conditions our interpretation of the world, going someway to lessening the difference.

Gunasekara concludes that both Marxism and Buddhism are humanistic philosophies of action. I found his interpretation to be most helpful in helping to further my understanding of both; as a Buddhist with distinctly socialist political leanings. Like Snyder or Knabb, it also affirms, in deference to Zizek’s (admittedly somewhat accurate) notion that the Western Buddhist can use his faith to remove himself from the problems of the world, that the Buddhist can indeed not just interpret the world, but change its material conditions.