Sunday 10 July 2011

The error of Christian Socialism


Many Liberal Christians nowadays take it for granted that Christianity (as they understand it) entails socialism; entails a powerful redistributive state.

Entails, more specifically, a state based on 'compassionate' values - contrasted with a state based on capitalism.

For Liberal Christian Socialists, the primary role of the state should be alleviation of misery by equalization of goods - from those that have too much from those that do not have enough.


This error seems to have arisen around the time of the Reformation, and to have become noticeable in England mid-seventeenth century, during the Civil War with proto-Communist groups like the Diggers and Levellers.

But socialism, and Christian socialism, only became a major force after the Industrial Revolution was underway, and during the 19th Century.

So, the timing was all wrong for any genuinely Christian link between Christianity and socialism; socialism was nearly two thousand years late, and arose during an era of rapid secularization, modernization, and economic growth.


The (genuine) impulse for socialism seems itself to have been based on a factual error: the false (but common) belief that the Industrial Revolution led to increased poverty and inequality. 

Yet the industrial revolution benefited the poor more than the rich, as can be seen from the undeniable fact of rapid and sustained population growth, driven by the tremendously reduced mortality rates among the poorest.

Presumably the early Christians who adopted socialism mistook the new obviousness of poverty (on public display in new cities) for an increase in the prevalence of poverty. Their ignorance of rural poverty was taken as evidence for its absence.

(So we see the Dickensian idea that the new industrial cities had created poverty on a massive scale - when the net reality was the opposite.)


There are two strands inspiring socialism:

1. relief of poverty (and misery in general) and

2. egalitarianism.


1. Relief of poverty has a genuine Christian link, in the sense that Christian individuals are expected to be compassionate, and voluntarily to give alms to 'the poor'.

(The duty of almsgiving is not at all distinctive to Christianity, being the case for Islam, and some other religions.)

The emotion of compassion and the act of almsgiving are therefore intrinsically individual spiritual acts.

For the impersonal state to usurp compassion and almsgiving, to coercively confiscate resources from one group of people and (keeping some for the state) to allocate these resources to other people is very obviously not equivalent to voluntary almsgiving by act of choice.


2. The egalitarianism of socialism is refuted by Christianity, at least as Christianity was understood everywhere for 1500 years plus.

Traditional Christianity was always about hierarchy; hierarchy in heaven and on earth. 

Therefore to derive egalitarianism from Christianity entails re-writing Christianity to suit modern secular aspirations - which has, of course, been done, wholesale.


But commonly socialism has conflated 1. and 2.; conflated Almsgiving and Egalitarianism: to regard equalization as the primary method of abolishing poverty.

To hold this error in the face of experience requires a further conflation, that of inequality with poverty.

So that for modern Christian Socialists (as for Leftists in general) 'the poor' are redefined as 'the poorest'.

Material poverty, having in fact been eradicated in The West as a consequence of the industrial revolution (there have been essentially no poor in The West, as poverty was understood in ancient times, for many decades); 'poverty' has long since been redefined from "not having enough of X" to "having less X than/ poorer quality X than."


But the persistence of Christian socialism is not completely irrational: it survives because in a secular political system (i.e. in the secular system created by Leftism) there is no perceived spiritual alternative.

The perception is that socialism is somewhat moral as a political system - it has some values; whereas the secular right wing parties are perceived as being amoral, value-free: focused purely on economic growth ("capitalism"), military power, individualism and competition.

Individual Rightists may be religious or will have positive values as individuals, but positive values are not intrinsic to mainstream secular Right politics.


So, how could such a situation arise? 
The Good is the highest goal in life; but The Good as a unitary entity is hard to understand and to think about - and most people usually focus on three component transcendental Goods of Truth, Beauty and Virtue (T, B and V).
However, there is a problem in splitting up the Good - which is that people begin to evaluate the world using separate modalities of thought.
Truth becomes the province of first philosophy, then later science. Beauty becomes the province of art.
And Virtue? Virtue becomes religion - the whole thing!
Virtue – or ‘morality’ - can become the whole of a religion - such that people cannot see that religion has anything to do with either Truth or Beauty.

Morality becomes the whole thing – the sole legitimate aim of human endeavor.
In which circumstance religion becomes legalistic, inevitably.
Virtue is then a matter of following a set of rules, of Laws.
Virtue is reduced merely to obedience. 
Having broken the Good into T, B and V; and made religion purely a matter of V; we then observe that ‘morals’ and ‘ethics’ seem to be autonomous from religion – forming an apparently independent realm of discourse.
And this free-floating, continually-changing secular morality is then turned-around and used to judge and evaluate the Virtuousness of those systems of religion from which it originated, which provided its original foundations – and secular morality finds religion deficient.
But once religion is reduced to the pursuit of Virtue, and once Virtue is conceptualized in terms of Laws, and obedience to these Laws - then secular morality can dispense with religion, or take-over and use religion for its own purposes.
Secular socialism (liberalism, political correctness) is the destruction of Christianity take-over of Christianity by socialism...
That is the only difference between them.


dearieme said...

You can't be a Christian and a Socialist. The Bible is quite clear: "Thou shalt not covet.....".

sykes.1 said...

"Virtue is then a matter of following a set of rules, of Laws."

Is this not Paul's critique of Judaism?

GFC said...

Since Leo XIII the Popes have had a number of writings on socialism, none of it positive. I recommend Quadragesimo Anno from Pius XI. I think it will be an interesting read for you Dr. Charlton as it covers some of what you mention.

Link to Q.A.:

Also from Q.A.:
If Socialism, like all errors, contains some truth (which, moreover, the Supreme Pontiffs have never denied), it is based nevertheless on a theory of human society peculiar to itself and irreconcilable with true Christianity. Religious socialism, Christian socialism, are contradictory terms; no one can be at the same time a good Catholic and a true socialist.

Sadly this battle rages to the present day as the virus of socialism infects many Catholics (it's a major part of the general heresy that grips a great deal of modern Western Catholics). Pope Benedict wrote two condemnations of Liberation Theology which is a vehicle for socialism, in the 1980s, and writes on these matters most recently in Caritas in Veritate.

Hugo said...

I am not a biblical scholar, but I always though Jesus was pretty explicit with "It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle, than for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of God" and "Yet lackest thou one thing: sell all that thou hast, and distribute unto the poor, and thou shalt have treasure in heaven". Is that not socialism?

Bruce Charlton said...

@Hugo - obviously not!

Surely there is all the difference in the world between *giving away* your own wealth; and having wealth confiscated and re-allocated by the state?

The one is an active moral act done by choice; the other is something done-to-you without choice.

Does this really need to be spelled-out?

Brett Stevens said...

To my mind, the most profound statement of Christianity (via the prophet Jesus Christ) is that giving should be anonymous. Something about not letting the right hand know what the left hand is doing.

Public charity is a form of manipulation: "Look at me, I'm giving to the homeless!" -- often satirized as what kids do in order to get into college, or what collegiate make-out artists do to impress liberal women.

Private charity is what I've seen many people do in the south: after a tragedy, food appears on the back door in abundance. You never see them leave it, either. It's quite beautiful.

Hugo said...

Bruce: quite right.

What are your thoughts on those particular quotes? Do you think anyone who is rich should sell "all that thou hast", and if so how would you define "rich"?

Bruce Charlton said...

@Hugo - I am not the man to turn to for Biblical exegesis, I'm afraid!

But I do believe that the ascetic (hermetic/ monastic) way is the path to sanctity, for those with a vocation to it and in the proper context - and in this respect the best Christians will always have given away their worldly goods.

However, there are very few such people nowadays, and giving-away (or, with socialism, having-confiscated) all your worldly goods is utterly ineffectual unless done for the sake of God and as part of ascetic discpline.

Bruce Charlton said...

@GFC - yes I have looked through this.

The problem with the official Catholic ideas on economics is that they seem unlikely to happen (a century old and events have constantly moved away from them), and that they are a kind of halfway house between capitalism and traditional top-down agricultural societies.

I suspect that 'distributism' is only stable in very specific situations (e.g. Iceland through the Middle Ages, New England for a couple of hundred years)

Gabe Ruth said...

Regarding that last comment: since when image you particularly concerned with being pragmatic? Let me also say that I appreciate that. But getting to a system that you or I would be happy with would take a transitional phase that wouldn't be pleasant for anyone. I think that was a rather glib dismissal of a body of thought that commands at least consideration.

This post was pretty fantastic though. You ever come across Will Shetterly? A pretty good example of a sincere Universalist who has a running series of "socialist" Bible verses. I would never accuse Mr. Shetterly of covetousness though. Just hubris.

Bruce Charlton said...

@GR - I was a distributist long before I ever heard of the term or read Chesterton or Belloc - I got it from Schumacher and the Self Sufficiency movement of the 1970s - especially John Seymour, and things like Blueprint for Survival. In my mid teens this was a very mainstream view in England - on television (e.g. a hugely successful comedy called The Good Life).

But, except in geographical situations where farming is very unproductive and farms are necessarily spaced out - I can't see how distributism is sustainable - if one farmer becomes richer and wants to get bigger and take over, I can't see what would stop him - and it would be a positive feedback change...

In general, I have become either suspicious of or simply uninterested by economic theories. I think economics follows - it does not lead. The rulers simply cut economics to fit whatever they want to do anyway

- as happened in Sept 2008, when in the space of a few weeks Keynsianism was revived from the dead and made mainstream - in order to justify massive government spending - and everyone on the Left who wanted to continue and expand massive government spending anyway (regardless of the crisis) was happy to go along with it.

So, I believe that economics is (or should be) something worked-out according to common sense understanding of normal human sitiations - and it should follow (not lead) social change.

The other factor is that distributusm fits a particularly Roman Catholic idea of the State, which I regard as semi-modern, early modern, tending towards full modernity. (I mean the division of power/ organization between temporal and spiritual; monarch and Pope - with separate organizations). In other words unstable and antagonistic intrinsically.

So I find it difficult to regard distributism as anything other than a similarly temporary transition.

Finally, I am so pessimistic about the economic future and about future social disorder, that distributism seems like pie in the sky!

Gabe Ruth said...

I think your hypothetical shows a lack of imagination. You acknowledge towards the end the chaos that would have to ensue before any system like this would be a political possibility. So you think there should be laws to prevent one ambitious farmer from "taking over"? I think that if all the self-sufficient farmers in our post-catastrophe system came to see there work as a hymn to the Almighty, and rediscovered the dignity of labor, it would be much more difficult to take over his farm. He would recognize that the way of centralization would lead to more ease for himself, but since he would be in the future he may have a clue where that will end up.

You should be distrustful of government economics. This doesn't excuse you from thinking about the issue though. This also brings our differences about the union of secular and spiritual authority back up. You think that a separation is more likely to lead to modernity. I think the opposite. Mr. Moldbug's linking of Christianity and the roots of the modern left is far more accurate than you want to believe. We had a theocracy once. It was all there was, and it has been utterly destroyed, and much human faith with it. If religion is true, it can take care of itself. If this world becomes less pleasant for Christians in the time to come, we should welcome it. For it means we are doing something right. I pray that I will be up for the challenge.

Thrasymachus said...

>>Individual Rightists may be religious or will have positive values as individuals, but positive values are not intrinsic to mainstream secular Right politics.<<

Mainstream secular right politics operates on the assumption that leftism is moral and well-intentioned, but simply impractical in some aspects. That's why it's very weak. Only by stepping outside this the "conservative" obtain any perspective.

George Goerlich said...

Here is an example article where a socialist Christian admits that equality *is* His religion, and once he realized Christianity was an impediment to he simply tosses aside: