TCS Daily

A Tale of Two Prophets

By Lee Harris - June 23, 2005 12:00 AM

In the middle of the nineteenth century, two bearded prophets appeared who made a universal appeal to the poor and downtrodden of the earth. One lived in London, and his name was Karl Marx. One lived in Salt Lake City, and his name was Brigham Young. One, Marx, had science on his side. The other had the Book of Mormon. Marx argued that he had determined the iron laws that govern the movement of history, and told the poor and downtrodden, "Organize socialist parties, and try to overthrow the capitalist system." Brigham Young told the wretched immigrants who showed up on his door step in Salt Lake City, at the end of the weary and dangerous journey across the Rocky Mountains and the Great Plains, "Go first and plant vegetables. Learn to feed yourself by the sweat of your own brow."

Of the two men, Marx had by far the greatest following. The Communist Manifesto, after all, was a much more cogent and compelling work than the bizarre text transcribed by Joseph Smith under the guidance of the angel Moroni. Yet whose prophecy has proved more fruitful? Go visit Russia and see what Marx's followers achieved, then travel halfway across the earth to visit Salt Lake City.

How is it that a religion like Mormonism has been able to solve problems that, so far, no purely secular system has been able to solve? Why did Brigham Young's culturally backward followers flourish and prosper in the desert, whereas Marx's most brilliant disciples ended by killing tens of millions of human beings in the name of progress? What was Brigham Young's secret?

Brigham Young believed that man was put on earth to do hard physical work with his hands, and he believed this was the only sure way to achieve salvation. Marx and his followers believed that man had been put on earth to enjoy it, and looked forward to a millennium in which mankind could eventually be freed from Adam's curse -- the cruel necessity to earn his bread by the sweat of his brow. Machines could do the work for us; technology would free us to devote our time to the pursuit of higher things. Manual labor would become a thing of the past -- as it has for so many modern Americans, at least those who have received college educations; and the same is no less true for the educated elite around the world who occupy positions of economic power and political influence that exempt them from the necessity to do life's dirty work.

Karl Marx dreamt of a world without hard labor; Brigham Young made a religious duty of it, and, indeed, an honor and a privilege. God had blessed us by giving us something genuinely productive to do, like growing the crops that will keep us from starving, like taking people's garbage out of the suburbs and the cities, or building people's houses, or landscaping their yards, or looking after them when they are sick.

In the eyes of Brigham Young, manual labor was collaboration with the Almighty in his ongoing effort to improve the world. The world, according to this point of view, was not created finished and perfect, as the educated theologians have vainly tried to argue; rather, it was deliberately left in an extremely unfinished state. Why? So that man would have a meaningful task to perform: so that he would become a co-creator of the universe.

Nor were the Mormons alone in sanctifying hard work. Their attitude was ultimately derived from the teachings of John Calvin, who preached what Max Weber would make famous as the Protestant work ethic -- an ethic that emerged in the Puritans, the Quakers, the Methodists, the Shakers and all the other various religious communities that glorified hard work and that inevitably ended up by making the members of these communities so prosperous that their wealth began to endanger the well being of their soul.

The theology of hard labor is radically at odds with the theology of the intellectual. The intellectual wants to contemplate the world, and to understand how it works. The man who works with his hand wants to change it, and to reshape it into a more desirable form. Nothing matters to him about an idea except what William James called its "cash value" -- its significance in the day-to-day life of concrete people.

The American philosophy known as pragmatism should best be understood as a method by which intellectuals can try to come to terms with the religions of hard work. It looks at a figure like Brigham Young and it says, "I grant you that there is much that is frankly silly and absurd about Mormonism. Yet look at what the Mormons were able to do. They took a desert and transformed it into a garden."

At the conclusion of The Communist Manifesto, Marx had said "Workers of the world unite; you have nothing to lose but your chains; you have a world to gain."

Lucky the fate of those workers of the world who decided to unite in Salt Lake City under the guidance of Brigham Young. They did not gain a world; they made one, just as the Protestant Dutch made their land by dredging it up from the sea. They took what God had not finished and they finished it for him, and for themselves.

As a young man, Marx had argued in his Theses on Feuerbach that philosophy had contemplated the world long enough, and that the time had come to change it. But when intellectuals decide to improve the world they inevitably make a mess of it. Only those religious fanatics who have been crazy enough to believe that hard work of individuals was a sacred duty have succeeded in changing the material condition of mankind for the better.

Lee Harris is author of Civilization and Its Enemies: The Next Stage of History.


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