With the rise of a young, avowedly socialist movement in the USA there is renewed interest in the history, nature, and prospect of Socialism. What is it? There are several definitions or several variants of Socialism. The Oxford Dictionary of English gives the following baseline definition:
a political and economic theory of social organization which advocates that the means of production, distribution, and exchange should be owned or regulated by the community as a whole.
This has often been summarized with the slogan: “The public ownership of the means of production.” Of course “public” can mean the people themselves considered as a mass (as in some sort of co-op) or it can refer to the government, that entity with the authority and means to enforce laws and rules by force.
Even to speak of a “publicly owned company” can be confusing since, private companies that issue shares of stock on the Stock Market become, in some sense, “publicly owned,” i.e., owned by share holders. In this case, however, we might think of a water utility that is owned by the citizens of a town. To speak of “state-owned” conjures visions of Fascist governments taking over companies in the 1930s. Of course the Fascists had socialist roots and Benito Mussolini (1883–1945) was a member of the Italian Socialist party and always considered himself a Socialist.
In Marxist theory, Socialism is a transitional phase in history between capitalism (the private ownership of property and the means of production) and communism, the eschatological (final, glorious) state of being in which all things are had in common by all, where no one owns anything in particular and everyone owns everything. One of the communist slogans was “from each according to his ability, to each according to his need.” This distribution of goods, however, turned out to be trickier than Marx thought. In practice, in the Soviet Union, it led to a small group of people, who lived well, lording it over the rest of the people who lived miserably.
Unfortunately, the Millennials who seem attracted for the moment to Socialism seem to have little awareness of how Socialism has actually been practiced in Cuba, China, or the Soviet Union. Perhaps their history teachers have not told them about how desperate folk were to escape from East Germany that they were shot for trying to escape or how the Soviet Union was described as living behind an “Iron Curtain” because it held millions in captivity in a terrible police state? Stella Morabito was an intelligence analyst who focused on the Soviet Union. She knows the history of Socialism in the Soviet Union very well and has recently provided a very helpful survey. The very short story is that the actual history of Socialism as practiced after Marx is bloody and miserable.
As I indicated, the word Socialism is used to describe a variety of views, some of which are quite distant from the others. E.g., Europeans have “Social Democrat” parties and have practiced forms of so-called “Democratic Socialism.” American advocates of this form of Socialism have long pointed to Sweden as their ideal. Anthony B. Kim and Julia Howe, however, contest the popular assertion that Social Democratic Socialism leads to prosperity for all. They argue that Sweden and Denmark largely abandoned the very model to which Social Democrats point. They abandoned it in favor of privatization because even that version of Socialism failed. In other words, there are strong reasons to doubt the claim that Socialism has failed because the right people have not yet tried it.
What should Christians think about Socialism? After all, there are Christian Socialists (sometimes known as Christian Democrats) in Europe. There are Christian traditions that embrace some version of socialism and, according to some Christians, God requires Christians to practice some version of socialism. We see some types of Socialism in Christian history in the rise of the coenobitic (communal) monastic movements in the 4th century in Egypt. There monks lived together and shared all things in common, ostensibly in imitation of the apostolic church. More about that in a moment. After the 4th century the Socialist impulse manifested itself again, e.g., in the 16th century among some of the Anabaptists.
In response, the Dutch Reformed Churches confessed in Belgic Confession (1561) Art. 36:
Wherefore we detest the Anabaptists and other seditious people, and in general all those who reject the higher powers and magistrates and would subvert justice, introduce community of goods, and confound that decency and good order which God has established among men.
Were the Reformed Churches being merely “reactionary” (as the Marxists said) or did they have some basis for their opposition to the “community of goods”? Here we need to consider Acts 2:42-47
They were continually devoting themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer. Everyone kept feeling a sense of awe; and many wonders and signs were taking place through the apostles. And all those who had believed were together and had all things in common; and they began selling their property and possessions and were sharing them with all, as anyone might have need. Day by day continuing with one mind in the temple, and breaking bread from house to house, they were taking their meals together with gladness and sincerity of heart, praising God and having favor with all the people. And the Lord was adding to their number day by day those who were being saved (ESV).
Here Luke gives us an account of dramatic growth of the church, evidence of the Spirit’s presence and blessing on it. After Pentecost the church gave itself to what the Reformed churches call “the means of grace,” i.e., to the Word and to the sacraments. The life of the church was not entirely composed of miracles even as the Spirit, in the apostolic period, was doing signs and wonders to confirm the Word that was being preached. That was a fulfillment of our Lord’s promise that when he ascended he would be with his people in power, in a way that he could not be while yet on earth (John 14:12–31; Matt 28:20).
The disciples did have everything in common for a time but, in the context, in the flow of Luke’s narrative there is no indication that this was a permanent state. Indeed, there is much evidence that it was only temporary. Believers were selling their property and sharing it with the church because of a famine. This was what the Reformed Churches today call a “Diaconal” offering. Consider this: believers had property to sell. They could not sell what they did not own. We see believers continuing to own private property (e.g., Acts 12:12; 16:34; 17:5; 18:7; 20:20; Col 4:15), which they used to host congregations and in other ways. In other words, if we read Luke’s narrative on his own terms, in its original context, the evidence leads us away from the conclusion that the early and normative Christian social pattern was socialist.
Further, and perhaps most importantly in this discussion, even if believers were to gather privately in some sort of commune (like a modern Israeli Kibbutz) to share their goods (as happened in the 1960s and 70s in the USA and before that in some utopian communities in the 19th century in the USA) this is nothing like the “public ownership” nor the state control of the means of production (e.g., private property). Indeed, the Bible everywhere assumes private property as I have argued elsewhere. The eighth commandment, (as numbered in the Hebrew Bible and by the Reformed Churches) makes no sense if everything is owned in common. There is no such thing as “your lawnmower.” Under communal ownership, it is our lawnmower. One cannot steal one’s own property. The same is true of the tenth commandment. The underlying assumption of the prohibition against covetousness is that my neighbor’s lawn mower is his and I am not to desire to have it. Indeed, there is a case to be made that most forms of Socialism are merely institutionalized envy and covetousness. The notion that “She has too much money” (frequently heard on the lips of socialists) is nothing but envy, one of the seven cardinal sins.
As the Beatles learned (see “Tax Man”) and as the character played by John Cleese in the Monty Python “Lupin” sketch showed, Socialism is not only a poor theory it is impossible to execute in history. More fundamentally, Scripture does not prescribe anything like the public or state ownership of the means of production. Believers certainly shared their goods during the famine in Jerusalem, in the early years of the church, but the apostles nowhere teach that as a precept nor was it even the pattern observed throughout Acts. Some in the fourth century and after did form monastic communities but even some of those orders, as they developed, became quite wealthy. They were not actually Socialist but they became like little Soviets, with some at the top living well while others at the bottom lived very poorly. The Reformation typically relieved those orders of their ill-gotten wealth (e.g., young boys and their inheritance were given as “oblates” to orders such as the Benedictines creating an incentive to imprison them to keep the dough) and turned the monasteries into places of education and worship and sold their vast holdings for actual poverty relief.
The desire to relieve suffering is noble but inflicting poverty and death on a mass scale obviously exacerbates the problem rather than relieving it. The church should relieve suffering among her members and Christians ought to band together privately to do what they can but seizing the power of the state to compel charity or to enforce the public ownership of private property has been a colossal failure.
To paraphrase Margaret Thatcher…Socialism is a great form of government until you run out of other peoples money.
If socialism is on the rise in the USA – despite the overwhelming evidence of its failure in the USSR Cube, Cambodia etc. Then it speaks to the problems with capitalism as is practiced in the USA rather than a failure of teaching history. Certainly the millennial’s from the US that i meet are motivated by a desire to change the current system than anything else. Will you write a blog on the problems of Capitalism as is practiced in the US?
I might add that it appears hear that you neatly move from socialism to communism. And at times put the former under the judgement of the latter. One might disagree with socialism as is your right but its not the same as communism and can’t come under the same judgement, and , as im sure you would agree, i have liberty to order the common kingdom as i prudentially see fit. I choose social democracy and i choose it freely.
I live in a welfare state, an actual Social democracy, i have benefited from it and would not be where i am without such benefits. My times in the states (i am married to an american) are good but i would rather not live there thank you very much. In fact given my family background had i been living there i would no doubt have never escaped the poverty i was born into. I am aware of the problems with SD but on the whole i would prefer it to rampant turbo capitalism of your good country.
The USSR = The Union of Soviet SOCIALIST Republics. The GDR was the German Democratic Republic (East Germany). Your response illustrates that problem IS the teaching of history (or the lack thereof). Though people referred to the USSR as a Communist state, as Marx understood communism, the USSR never arrived.
Even their practice of Socialism was a disaster, that’s why we Americans had to feed them, because they couldn’t grow enough food to feed themselves.
I acknowledged a range of practices under the banner of Socialism, including European (and implicitly) British and Irish social democratic states. I lived in the UK and experienced it 1st hand. It was nothing to write home about—well, it was but not in a good way.
The Millennials who complain about capitalism do so from the comfort of 2-story ranch homes, with 3 cars, air-conditioning, wi-fi, and they do so using $1,000 mobile phones. They do so over-fed and under exercised. In short, they do so living off of the fat provided by Capitalism, which has provided for them quite well. Even the poorest Americans own an auto, have air-conditioning, a flat-screen television, and free (publicly paid) medical care. No nation has ever had such a high standard of living. No European or British monarch lived as well as our lower middle class and working class families.
The welfare state aids some, no doubt but it traps many others in poverty. There are multiple studies showing just that. The Great Society meant well but it trapped millions in a perpetual state of 1-parent families. It destroyed the African-American family, which, before the Great Society (1964) was intact. It has bred generational poverty and hopelessness. It has done little for the poor whites in the Appalachians except to trap them in a cycle of dependence upon government subsidies and drug addiction (See Hillbilly Elegy).
Are their problems with capitalism? Surely, but the point was to address the claim that the public ownership of the means of production is biblical. It certainly isn’t. Further, our new Socialists aren’t content with Social Democracy. They want the real thing. They seem have no knowledge of or appreciation of the misery and destruction brought Soviet Socialism.
If you’re in Ireland (just a guess), the roots of your poverty do not lie in the evils of capitalism. Indeed, Ireland’s economy has flourished to the degree they’ve embraced more capitalism and abandoned Socialism.
In the initial issue of The Calvin Forum, May, 1935 there was an article written
by Peter Hoekstra called Russian Communism – an Indictment which can be
found here :
2 Politburo members were walking through the red square at the height & zenith
of the Soviet Empire, when one turned to the other and asked ” is this all that
communism can achieve, have we achieved all we set out to accomplish or is there
still more progress to be made?” the other turned to him and said ” Commrade
it’s going to get a lot worse than this!”
What I find particularly alarming is the rise of the social justice movement, even in some churches that identify as Reformed. There is even one very prominent megachurch/multi church pastor who makes the claim that unless you are actively working for social justice, you should question whether you are justified! He is willing to set aside all denominational\doctrinal differences in the interest of promoting social justice as the most important purpose of the church. Is this pastor making working for social justice the new law of the of the social gospel, as a covenant of works?
Socialism is evil, I really believe one cannot make a biblical case for it. It is stealing and killing in order to satisfy the greed in the hearts of those in goverment. I live in Colombia and right now we are receiving a wave of Venezuelans scaping from the XXI century’s socialism as Hugo Chavez would call it.
It is remarkable that people do not seem to be able to see what is right before their eyes.
It is possible people cannot see because they are being given over to their covetousness and are blinded by sin.
Our rentier capitalism is failing and, without reforms, we’re headed for worse.
Christianity does not prescribe any form of governance of the state. The scriptures teach the church is of divine origin with its own polity and members and can exist under all forms of temporal governance. It outlasts all governments.
Within the church charity to each other is highly commended. It is always to be done not out of compulsion but via the fruit of the Spirit, out of brotherly love and grace and mercy for each other. Acts 5 reflects these principles. It is not to be used for some sort of obligatory church law, nor a prescription for temporal governance.
The gospel and it’s subsequent freedom will thrive under any rule. However that doesn’t mean all types of governance are equal. Some, like communism and socialism are in direct contradiction to the value and dignity of man and the freedoms he is endowed with.
The fall of man warrants the need for civil governance to maintain peace and freedom. I am thankful for our framers vision and our constitutional republic which utilizes many scriptural principles. This however was not commanded by scripture for the state to do this, it was merely a blessing of Providence to endow those men with sound wisdom.
Michael, I think you make an excellent point, Scripture tells us to love our neighbor, not from compulsion but as a fruit of the Spirit, as a voluntary act of charity. All forms of socialism, including the social gospel, are about making it a form of “justice”, hence “social justice” where it becomes a law that the poor have a “just” right to demand equal access to everything, by compelling those that God has blessed in His Providence to give it to them. It seems to me to be an attempt to “correct” the inequality of this fallen world by human expediency, by threat and force as required.
Sorry, Michial. Autocorrect strikes again.
J. Vos’ commentary on the WLC 141:
“5. Is socialism contrary to Christianity?
The word socialism is used with such varying meanings that it is difficult to speak definitely of it unless it is first defined so that it can be known precisely what is meant. Marxian socialism, which is the root of modern communism, is certainly contrary to the Christian religion. Yet there is a limited form of socialism that is not contrary to the teachings of God’s Word. For the government to operate the postal service, instead of leaving it to the initiative of private persons or corporations, is a sort of socialism; yet it cannot be regarded as sinful for the state to engage in this enterprise. In most countries of the world the railways, ways, telegraphs, and telephone service are operated either chiefly or exclusively by the state. We may consider this wise or unwise, but we can hardly prove that it is contrary to the Bible. However, a line has to be drawn somewhere; it would certainly be wrong for the state to take over and operate all business and commerce. The operation of business by the state should be confined to such activities as the postal service, which are essential to all the people of the country and which for cheapness and efficiency require a nationwide monopoly. The state should maintain conditions in which private business can be carried on, and should regulate private business in the interests of justice, but should not supplant private business by competing with it. God instituted civil government to promote the welfare of men by maintaining justice in human society (Rom. 13:4), not to develop into a colossus of collective enterprise in competition with its own citizens.
Johannes Geerhardus Vos. Westminster Larger Catechism: A Commentary (Kindle Locations 5047-5056). Kindle Edition.