I’ve lately been reading Robert Service’s excellent Comrades!: Communism – A World History, a book which aims to deliver a “general account of communism around the world.” Like many works so grand in scope, Comrades starts at the beginning: the origins of communism. Service does a superb job describing these origins, enumerating the many influences on the ideology throughout history. Two facts stand out: 1) as a vision of the ideal society, types of communism existed long before Marx and Engels in the 19th century; 2) a significant number of those influences were Christian thinkers, taking from Christian doctrines. This latter fact is something I wish to explore further here.
Before I get into that, it might be useful to define what we mean by “communism”. Service correctly notes how stubbornly it has defied definition. “One communist’s communism is another communist’s anti-communism,” he writes. Still, there are at least two core elements virtually all communisms (with a small “c”) have built upon:
- Common, as opposed to private, ownership of property and the means of production
- “From each according to their ability, to each according to their need.”
What those who identify themselves as communist or socialist have never agreed on is the means to achieve this vision. Marx and Engels, members of a long line of communist theorists, by no means settled the debate, but they were the first to thoroughly elaborate an allegedly scientific analysis of why capitalism would inevitably collapse and lead ultimately to communism. They drew inspiration from wide-ranging array of philosophers, economists, historians, and scientists, both classic and contemporary.
While today’s Christians tirelessly strive to promote atheism as the genesis of communism, a claim I’ve refuted many times on this blog (see right sidebar), they’ve never explained why no atheist thinker mentions anything like it until the 19th century. In contrast, communist principles are found at the very birth of Christianity:
All the believers were together and had everything in common. Selling their possessions and goods, they gave to anyone as he had need. (Acts 2:44-45, NIV)
All the believers were one in heart and mind. No one claimed that any of his possessions was his own, but they shared everything they had. With great power the apostles continued to testify to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and much grace was upon them all. There were no needy persons among them. For from time to time those who owned lands or houses sold them, brought the money from the sales and put it at the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to anyone as he had need.
Joseph, a Levite from Cyprus, whom the apostles called Barnabas (which means Son of Encouragement), sold a field he owned and brought the money and put it at the apostles’ feet. (Acts 4:32-37, NIV).
These passages excited the imaginations of later Christians, inspiring real and theoretical applications. One of the most influential was Catholic Saint Thomas More’s Utopia. Published in the early 16th century, it described a society free of private ownership and unemployment, where communal living is the norm, and worship of all forms is tolerated, except forms of non-worship like atheism. Other similar works by fellow Christian thinkers followed, including The City of the Sun and Description of the Republic of Christianopolis. Christian sects such as the Anabaptists, the True Levellers, the Plymouth colonists, and the Mormons made attempts to put communist principles into practice. They weren’t successful, to put it mildly.
The industrial revolution begun in the 18th century resulted in some severe side-effects, such as social dislocations and abysmal working conditions, which in turn provided fertile ground for the rapid growth of leveling ideologies like communism. Christians were among the vanguard in the “social justice” movements that emerged in the 19th century, both as leaders and ideologists. A roundly influential tract was written by Joseph Proudhon titled What is Property? Or, an Inquiry into the Principle of Right and Government, the famous conclusion of which was “property is theft.” Proudhon cited the Bible as the primary influence on his beliefs.
Another popular figure in the early 19th century proto-communist movement was Wilhelm Weitling, who wrote Gospel of Poor Sinners, a book which traced communism back to early Christianity. Weitling produced another work, Guarantees of Harmony and Freedom, which was praised my Marx. It was influential among the founders of the League of the Just, whose goal was “the establishment of the Kingdom of God on Earth, based on the ideals of love of one’s neighbour, equality and justice”. The League of the Just would later become the Communist League. Marx and Engels were members, and they were commissioned to draw up a manifesto for the organization. They did just that, and so came into existence The Communist Manifesto.
Although Christians were prominent in founding and promoting communism, it would be a mistake to view communism as primarily a Christian ideology until Marxism. Indeed, many Christians going back centuries defended private property, and they opposed communism in both word and deed (but sometimes not for the most noble of reasons…), particularly Marx’s religiously-unfriendly brand of communism. Yet it would also be a mistake to deny communism’s indebtedness to Christian scriptures and thinkers, a rich legacy from which a sizable number Christians draw even up to the present time. Liberation theology is the most notable species of Christian communism that remains alive and well, albeit in an evolved form.
Needless to say, most Christians have not taken it kindly when confronted with communism’s kinship to their religion. They primarily object that the social order described in works like Acts was a voluntary arrangement, not one to be imposed by force as attempted by the Marxist-Leninist brand of communists, or that it was applicable only to that time period. The objections are peculiar in that Christians have never denied themselves the right to be guided by scripture in questions about how the social order should be arranged; abortion and gay marriage being two notable, contemporary examples. Moreover, if indeed it’s the case that “all Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness” (2 Tim. 3:16), then it would imply the Christian god has sanctioned the communist ethos described in Acts as his desired state for everyone, or at least for his followers. Even if Christians blanche at imposing it on unwilling participants, either democratically or dictatorially, that doesn’t prevent them from imposing it on themselves. That all Christian attempts at doing so have failed cannot indicate a problem in the principles themselves, since they were “God-breathed” and thus infallible. Christians, why are you running from your communist heritage, rather than embracing it?