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.