Ellul: what I learned from Marx

I’m currently reading Ellul par lui-même, which is an autobiographical account of Jacques Ellul’s key ideas, based on interviews conducted by Ellul’s “disciple”, William H. Vanderburg, for Canadian radio in 1979.

Ellul describes the impact that discovering Marx had on him at the age of 17: the insight that Marx’s writings seemed to give into the injustices Ellul had witnessed in his own family (where his father, never rich, had become unemployed in the post-1929 crash). However, when Ellul approached the communist workers he knew in Bordeaux, he was quickly disillusioned: they showed no interest in Marx’s thought, but instead just waited for their orders from the Party.

Disillusionment turned to complete rejection of communism as the Stalinist purges reached a peak in 1936-37, when Ellul was in his mid-20s. As Ellul says:

Contrary to what is said all the time now, I do not think it was necessary to be particularly intelligent, particularly enlightened, particularly clear-sighted, to understand what was happening in the Soviet world.

However, while his experience of what was happening in the USSR “drove me completely from communism”, the thought of Marx himself continued to have an influence, which Ellul summarises as follows.

First, it inspired in him a revolutionary outlook. Even though the communists were wrong (and the Nazis even more wrong), it was clear to him that the world could not continue as it was indefinitely:

The question of revolution was a central question during my youth, and it has basically remained central throughout my life. It is thanks to Marx that I have that conviction that man, whatever the diverse historical situations in which he finds himself, has a revolutionary function in respect of his society.

Second, Marx led Ellul to see the importance of reality. Not in the sense of philosophical materialism, but in the importance which Marx assigns to “the material and concrete reality which surrounds man and which, through intellectual or spiritual thought, he has a tendency to forget, to empty out, until finally that reality can become masked”. Marx’s influence, by contrast, led Ellul:

always to ask on the basis of what economic situation I am talking, on the basis of what context, of what interests.

The third element of his thought which Ellul drew from Marx was “the decision always to be on the side of the poor in this world”. This doesn’t mean simply those who are poor in cash terms, but those who are alienated from the conditions for modern life: what Marx terms the proletariat.

Above all, Ellul understood this in terms of the ability to sustain family life. He argues that, contrary to certain statements in the Communist Manifesto, Marx was not anti-family. Rather, he was hostile towards the fact that the bourgeoisie had turned the family into a privilege. What was unacceptable for Marx was not the existence of the family, but that a majority of people were prevented from enjoying the same family life that the bourgeois minority enjoyed. For Ellul:

The ideal, though unattainable in a capitalist society, is to form a happy and balanced couple and to have happy and balanced children. To be poor is to be unable to have such a family.

Marx had a comprehensive analysis of human life: psychological, sociological and economic. To be lacking in any of those areas was to be poor: so, for example, by 1979 Ellul regarded the elderly as being in poverty, even if they had enough to live on, due to their exclusion from wider society.

The one area where Marx had no influence on Ellul was in relation to religion – because at that stage Ellul (later a member of the Reformed Church) was so indifferent to religion that Marx’s critiques made no impact…


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