NB I’m not talking about the Russian revolution or any 20th/21st century Communist or Trotskyist Party in this basic introductory article.
I am defining the word communism as a group of people voluntarily sharing their wealth, i.e. their money and possessions. Everyone contributes to the good of society as best they can, and in return is provided for in whatever seems to be an appropriate way at the time. There is little or no hierarchy, certainly nothing remotely approaching the authoritarianism that seems intrinsic in communist and trotskyist parties and governments past and present; things are decided in a horizontal rather than a vertical fashion. Tolerance and mutual aid are the order of the day.
Fairytale pie-in-the-sky? Don’t rush to judgement – the idea of such a utopia has been around for a long time. Let’s look at the history of pre-Marxist communism before dismissing it. Is the underlying philosophy sound? Who benefits, who loses? Is it really rooted in the preachings of Jesus? Was Jesus, as was said at the time of the French Revolution, a sansculotte?
Recent examples of communism, as defined above, might be
- the Occupy movement
- some squats
- some intentional communities c.f. neo-monasticism
Older examples might be
- the disciples in Acts 2 & 4
- Anabaptists, Amish, Hutterites, Shakers, Taborites and other fringe Christian groups trying to live as they imagine first century Christians did in defiance of the mainstream church. (See Zingcreed Posts on ‘Red Christians’. Check the index)
I shall quote from the excellent book “The secularization of the European Mind” by Owen Chadwick, CUP ( 1975):
“Communism as a word was derived from a Christian memory and authority. Its vague beginnings were part of a long heritage of Christian discontent.” (See all my ‘Red Christians’ Posts)
Then along came Karl Marx who “deconsecrated” the word and made it the name of a new system of social thought. Marx and Engels called themselves ‘communists’ before any of their economic theories were even thought out. They defined the term ‘communist’ around their early philosophical ideas, such as alienation and exploitation, not around their later economic writings such as the theory of Surplus Value in Das Kapital. (see later Zingcreed Post on ‘Alienation‘)
Etienne Cabet (1788-1856) socialist reformer and founder of the idealistic non-Christian Icarian movement in France made some interesting comments:
“According to Jesus, the Apostles, and the Fathers of the church, Christianity cannot exist without communism. No-one can be called a Christian who is not a communist.”
“You can even say that Communism is a true religion; for there is no religion which united men more than the doctrine of brotherly love….Perhaps you could even say that nothing is more essentially religious than communism.”
And two twentieth century Christians in Latin America: “Christianity is Communism. Jesus was a Communist.” (José Porfirio Miranda, see Post “No Way José!“) and “The catholic who is not a revolutionary is living in mortal sin.” (Camilo Torres -see Post “Red Christians #2 Camilo Torres)
In the mid nineteenth century, while honing his definition of communism, Friedrich Engels went around Europe looking for people who actually practised communism of one sort or other in their lives.
- In Germany the communists were a political grouping led by Wilhelm Weitling (see Zingcreed Post “Red Christians #4 Wilhelm Weitling“) who appealed to the scriptures all the time (i)
- In France, the resident communists were inspired by the Bible too, especially by the passages in Acts describing the sharing of goods.
- The Chartists in England criticised the church on the grounds that, as in Europe, it was not on the side of social justice. However, their morality was inseparable from their religion.
It seems that in Europe in the late 1840s, the working class were mostly friendly towards the Christian religion because it lay at the heart of their ideas of morality and social justice. Engels even discovered that communism was already in existence among some groups of practising Christian communists; usually small, puritanical and eccentric sects stemming from the Anabaptists. He wrote that communism was not a wild and impractical dream but was actually up and running in various places and amongst various, mainly Christian, people.
To him, as an atheist, the Christian creed was irrelevant to the communist project which would probably run better without it.
He concluded (1) that communism was not atheist in origin and that (2) men are happier when they have no private property.
Chadwick makes the important point that just as belief in God is a metaphysical doctrine, so is a belief in the non-existence of God. Neither has anything to do with socialism/communism. So why were 19th century working class men, who as Engels’ own research showed, were mainly still sympathetic to religion, expected to take on atheism as well as socialism? Was anti-religion in some still-mysterious way necessary to the social aspirations of the working class? Or was Marxism anti-religious because Marx and Engels just happened to both be atheists?
Why did Marx and Engels want to keep religion out of their communist project? I have already explored the question of the unsuccessful outcome of the “communist” German Peasants’ Revolt in the sixteenth century, as described by Engels. (Post “Red Christians #1 Thomas Müntzer“) and Marx’s reaction to this. He also despised his contemporary Wilhelm Weitling’s unscientific and emotional account of a future garden of Eden on earth.(see Post “Red Christians # 4 Wilhelm Weitling”).(i)
Marx saw religion as an inversion of reality, and therefore a source of alienating illusion. (See Post on “Alienation”). Marx did concede, however, that religion can be positive in offering a standard by which to criticise prevailing unideal conditions. According to Engels, religion enabled the revolutionary masses to envisage alternatives to existing conditions even though these alternatives were in the end only apocalyptic and fantastical. Therefore, Marx and Engels concluded, there was no place for religion in any genuinely revolutionary outcome.(ii)
Ironically, there is plenty of evidence that Marx was building on judaeo-christian foundations when he drew up his blueprints for a communist future. After all he came from a nominally Christian family and received a Christian education. (I remember one of his schoolboy essays on religion being reprinted in the Billy Graham magazine in the 1960s!) There is clearly enough material here for another Zingcreed Post! (iii) (iv) (v)
In reacting to Marx, the church found itself on the horns of a dilemma. Insofar as Christianity was true to itself it must be alienating politically: a set of abstract platitudes which are at best useless and at worst harmful to the advance of humanity. Insofar as Christianity engages genuinely with the revolutionary programme of socialism/communism it must cease to be genuinely religious!
To summarize here are some of the steps from Jesus to Marx that we know of :
(i) The sharing in Acts 2 and 4 by Jesus’ first disciples, shortly after his death.
(ii) The Taborites in Bohemia (1416-1436)
(iii) The Hutterites in Germany and the US (16 th century onwards)
(iv) The Shakers in England and the US, (1747 onwards)
(v) The Anabaptists throughout
(vi) The Paris Commune and the establishment of communism as a nineteenth century political platform.
(vii) The German political grouping ‘The League of the Just’ set up by Christian communist Wilhelm Weitling. It was later taken over by Marx and Engels who renamed it ‘The Communist League’.
(i) Weitling, W. “The Poor Sinner’s Gospel” (1843) Sheed and Ward (1969)
(ii) Turner, Denys “Marxism and Liberation Theology” in Rowland, C. “Cambridge Companion to Liberation Theology” CUP (2003)
(iii) Miranda, José Porfirio “Marx against the Marxists. The Christian Humanism of Karl Marx” SCM (1978)
(iv) Chadwick, Owen “The Secularization of the European Mind” CUP (1975)
(v) Bonino, José Miguez “Christians and Marxists. The Mutual Challenge to Revolution.” Ecclesia books (1974)
Related Zingcreed Posts:
The Christian roots of communism 2
Jesus’s Communist brother, James (1) His Life
Marx’s 3 criticisms of religion
Rosa Luxemburg’s insights into Christianity and socialism
Marx’s Christian roots
Alienation according to Marx
Jesus vs Marx – a fun quiz for all the family!
Two red Jewesses
Red Christian documents #1: Socialism is practical Christianity
Similarities between Christianity and socialism
Opium of the people
Is communism a religion in its own right?
Jesus’s real political message
Index for ‘Red Christian’ and ‘Red Christian document’ Posts
[indexed & linked, t&c]