Christ Rescued Haykin from the Clutches of Marxism
“In the face of such fears, Marxism proved to be helpless and could give me no comfort.”
Michael Haykin has one of the most interesting conversion stories I’ve ever heard.
Born in 1953 in Birmingham, England, he embraced Marxism by age 14. Western culture in the 1960s seethed with anger, especially among Haykin’s peers. But that atmosphere alone did not drive him to embrace a two-fisted worldview committed to imposing intimidation and violence on innocent people. The culprits, actually, were Roman Catholicism and Christian hypocrisy.
I spoke with Haykin, professor of church history and biblical spirituality at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, about what drew him to Marxism, how God saved him, whether some evangelicals today are “cultural Marxists,” and more.
While most of your teenage peers were playing team sports or discovering the opposite sex, you were reading Karl Marx, Vladimir Lenin, Che Guevara, and Mao Tse-Tung. Some of these figures promoted guerilla warfare and assembling Molotov cocktails. What drew you to Marxism?
A few friends and I drank all of this in, and we seriously—and quite naïvely, I now see—prepared ourselves for the revolution we thought was coming to North America. I can even remember preparing myself for the possibility that I would have to kill people close to me—such as members of my own family—for the sake of the revolution. But it is one thing to be a “budding” Marxist revolutionary in the comfort of your father’s house, and quite another when you’re living on your own in a city without many friends! My going to university in 1971 at the University of Western Ontario (UWO) in London proved to be the catalyst whereby God began to shake me free from the bondage of Marxism.
You were raised in a Roman Catholic home. When did you first become skeptical about the Catholic church, and what led you to be open to other worldviews?
The change in my worldview began as I observed the hypocrisy deeply entrenched in the Roman Catholic Church. I noticed that many of my high-school classmates centered their lives on drinking and partying, yet would turn up at church on Sunday and receive communion. I soon concluded that Christianity was a hypocritical sham. I began to stop attending mass.
But man is by nature a worshiping creature. I rejected the false worship embedded in Roman Catholicism only to fall into an even more heinous idolatry.
Virtually every conversion story is different. What means did God use to awaken you?
When I went to UWO, it was the first time I’d really been away from home. For the first term (autumn 1971), I was boarding with an elderly couple who seemed, at least to me, to be constantly talking about friends of theirs who were dying. Their somewhat morbid conversation awoke in me a fear that I had never fully faced: the fear of death. I began to think that I had medical problems—a brain tumor, heart defects, and so on—and would often lie awake at night listening to my heartbeat, terrified that it might suddenly stop. Sometimes my fears would so overwhelm me that I would call my father in the middle of the night and ask him to drive from Ancaster to London to take me home. In the face of such fears, Marxism proved to be helpless and could give me no comfort. I cannot recall making a conscious decision to reject Marxism, but slowly it began to lose its hold over me.
During my first year at UWO, two significant events occurred. The first stemmed from a growing interest in philosophy. Up to that point I had always expected to study history—my earliest academic love. But during my year at UWO, philosophy—partly because of my interest in Marxist thought—began to exert a greater control over my interest and thinking. One day in fall 1971, I sat down to write out a philosophical proof for the existence of God, but before I could put pen to paper, I knew beyond a shadow of a doubt that there is a God. One moment I was agnostic about God’s existence; the next, I knew there is a God. But believing God exists doesn’t necessarily entail a change of lifestyle, and it certainly does not mean salvation, as I was to find out.
The second significant event followed on the heels of the first. One of my friends at UWO was a fellow named Doug, with whom I had played high-school (American) football. Doug had become friendly with a group of Christians. Now and then, while having lunch with him, these Christians would be there—and although I don’t recall any of them witnessing to me about Christ, I do recall their conversation about Christ and the Holy Spirit. I began to try to pray, but how can you truly persevere in prayer if you don’t know Christ, and if his Spirit doesn’t live in you? As John Bunyan, the 17th-century Puritan put it, “When the Spirit gets into the heart, then there is prayer indeed, and not till then.”
Talk about the role your wife, Alison, played in your conversion.
Over the next couple of years, while I maintained a nodding interest in Marxist political thought, I began to probe into various areas of modern spirituality. Like so many of my generation, I turned eastward to such things as Taoism, Zen Buddhism, and Transcendental Meditation. But none of them could relieve my fear of death.
In autumn 1972 I left UWO and moved to the University of Toronto (U of T). During the course of that school year, the second year of my BA in philosophy, the implications of God’s existence were largely ignored as I led a somewhat riotous, immoral lifestyle.
Living in a one-bedroom apartment with two other guys took a heavy toll on our friendship. Not surprisingly, by the end of that year, we were no longer friends, and I began to make plans to live alone the following year. About this time, I was growing tired of the lifestyle I had been leading, and I decided to give up smoking and drinking, and cut my hair. I also slowly abandoned all commitment to doctrinaire Marxism.
During summer 1973, I got a job at Mother’s Pizza Parlor Restaurant in West Hamilton. It was here I met my future wife, Alison; I was a pizza-maker, and she was the cashier. After going on one date, I discovered she was a Christian and attended Stanley Avenue Baptist Church. In my desire to effect a real change in my outward lifestyle, I asked Alison if I could go to church with her. Little did I realize the sort of change that God had in store for me!
As the months rolled by, the fear of death that had lain submerged for a year and a half or so re-emerged. This fear was compounded by the fact that a certain philosopher I was intensely studying, Martin Heidegger, had maintained that authentic existence is only possible in the contemplation of one’s death. Again, I was faced with the fear of death, and I realized I was utterly helpless. But this time there was an answer at hand.
As I sat under the proclamation of the Word, which spoke of the risen Christ, and as Alison and her mother spoke to me about their faith, I began to grope toward the One who alone could free me from the fear of death—and from death itself (Heb. 2:14–15).
The breaking point came in February 1974. It was midweek, and for three nights in a row I awoke in a cold sweat, my heart pounding, fearful I was about to die. The third night—to my amazement—I fell on my knees, crying out to God for salvation. Graciously he opened my eyes to know his Son, and to know that in Christ there is salvation not only from sin’s power, but also from sin’s wages—eternal death. When I went home that weekend to Ancaster and Hamilton on the Greyhound bus, I knew beyond a shadow of a doubt that I was no longer alone—God had graciously come into my heart, the citadel of my life, and taken possession of it by his Holy Spirit.
What is Marxism? What about cultural Marxism? Do you think the current emphasis of some evangelicals on social justice is a species of Marxism or socialism?
Marxism is essentially an economic explanation of history: History is moving toward a specific goal, namely, the classless state, after the destruction of the bourgeoisie by the proletariat, that is, the working class. The past has seen the evolution from monarchical and aristocratic rule to bourgeois capitalism, which will be replaced by the proletariat in due course. The shifts from one economic system of rule to another is usually attended by violence, since class structures won’t normally relinquish power peacefully.
Lenin introduced a modification: the necessity of the dictatorship of the proletariat as a prelude to the classless state. Marx envisaged the classless state following hard on the heels of the working-class revolution. That did not happen in Russia, hence the need for the interim step of the dictatorship of the proletariat.
Cultural Marxism, developed primarily from the Frankfurt School associated with Max Horkheimer, was not as simplistic regarding the problems of modern society as was the economic determinism of classical Marxism. Cultural Marxism expanded its reflection beyond the economic to critique the dreariness and one-dimensional nature of culture and personal life in the bourgeois capitalist system.
What about the charge that some evangelicals’ emphasis on social justice reveals them to be a species of Marxism? I personally find that a ludicrous statement and tantamount to fear-mongering in a cultural climate for which socialism is an ever-present bugbear.
Why do some evangelicals confuse social ministry with Marxism?
Because they’ve bought into a cultural narrative that was shaped in the 20th century, when the ideological enemy was communism (the Cold War and all that), which was understood by many between the 1920s and the 1970s as the Antichrist. It is not easy to shake off this ethos. Tie that into a historic mistrust of the government, and the fact that social justice often involves governmental regulations, and you have the present climate of fear.
Do Reformed Christians have a heritage of working in areas that might be termed “social justice,” or is that a newer development?
Yes, all the way from the deacons in Calvin’s Geneva taking care of the city poor, to Spurgeon urging the British Parliament to prosecute not only prostitutes but also the men who used their services, to Spurgeon’s stated refusal to sit down at the Lord’s Table with slave owners, which led to his books being burned in the antebellum South. In between, we have men like William Wilberforce, who sat on the boards of more than 60 charities and believed social change had to happen on the fronts of both personal conversion and also socio-political legislation.
Editor’s note: This article originally appeared at The Gospel Coalition.