Communism’s Christian roots

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?

16 thoughts on “Communism’s Christian roots

  1. A very interesting review! I appreciate it. in conversation I remember hearing about a book written by a Christian writer that influenced Marx considerably and you’ve led me right to it…. so, thanks! Very thorough post.

    As a side note, I’m wondering if it would be accurate to say that the roots of Marxist communism are “atheistic” in as much as the influence of any God was stripped away in favor of a more functional/practical use communist practice? So… Marxist communism and Christian communism, in this way, have the important distinction of the influence of the Holy Scriptures and the indwelling Holy Spirit (i.e., a source of accountability outside of any one human participant).

    Also, I’d like to point out that attempts to create ‘a kingdom of God on earth’ are largely shunned by past and contemporary Christian thinkers… The idea is that, sure, whatever benefits come from movements of social change are certainly desirable, but an overemphasis on creating a perfect ‘utopian’ kingdom of God is unrealistic/impossible without individual redemption and the work of sanctification through the Holy Spirit….I’m probably not being clear.

    Suffice it to say that Christians are primarily called not to trust in any particular human institution of government. They are called to honor their governmental structures–communist or capitalist–but this honor is always superseded by allegiance to the heavenly kingdom of God that reigns in the hearts of them that believe.

  2. Hi janaiha, thanks for stopping by, and glad you liked the overview. Marx’s atheism came by way of the German philosophers, such as Feuerbach, some of whom tended to be anti-religious. Marx wasn’t trying to strip God out of his ideology; rather he say gods as an invention of the oppressed to relieve the misery of their condition.

    In any case, you may not be aware that I didn’t write this as a Christian myself, but as an atheist, and a student of communism. As you’re probably aware, communism is a dirty word among most Christians, a stance that, when you review history and the Bible, seems odd.

  3. Thanks for the info on Feuerbach. I’ll have to check that out!

    Oh, I knew this was an atheist site. Wasn’t hard to tell. =) I just thought it might be helpful to have an explanation (from the perspective of a believer) for why there might be this weird disconnect between biblical illustrations of … ‘proto-communism’ for lack of a better term, and present-day ‘Christian’ aversion to Marxism. My suspicion is that most of the aversion is cultural rather than biblical. (And the portion that *is* biblical has to do with the atheistic application of communism.) Even pastors that dislike communism (when pressed) will concede that the biblical perspective is not in favor of any particular form of human government over another. They would admit that all are flawed.

    Anyways, thanks again for the info! =)

    1. I am a born-again believer and so blessed reading your comments in here; just to let you know God used you – thanx and be Blessed !!! 🙂

  4. I read your post “Christian apologist and historian David Aikman” debunked, then went on and read this one. I was going to comment on that one but I’ll put my thoughts on both here instead.
    I agreed completely with your “Christian apologist” post . Based on my studies of Marxism and its application in the USSR (with some changes from the original) there was indeed a profound religious aspect. Stalin was indeed the living god, based on the works of the holy prophets Marx and Lenin.
    As a side note, the phrase “property is theft” has been interpreted wrongly. Proudhon makes clear in his What is Property? that he meant only one form-that is, absolute, sacred property. He believed in what he called possession, i.e. property based on occupancy and use, which he described as “property is liberty.” His las formulation was “property is impossible” with the sense of permanence, since possession cannot last forever. Just a clarification.
    Also, Proudhon had very different ideas from Marx. For one, as you note he was Christian, so believing that all the land of the Earth originally belonged to God and bestowed to people in common, which they could use in his terms of possession.
    He did not call himself communist as when he penned What is Property? this referred to authoritarian utopian communes such as that of Robert Owen he denounced, as did Marx, though as being “utopian” not their oppressiveness. In fact he is the first to call himself “anarchist” previously a term used solely to insult, such as with the Diggers (or True Levellers) whom you mentioned.
    Unlike many socialists, Proudhon believed a peaceful end to capitalism was possible (though he grew less certain of this in time). His proposed measures were to form “mutual banks” (much like modern credit unions) to fund cooperatives that would compete with capitalist industry so workers could have an option besides employment by them. Since he believed in occupancy and use bestowing property alone, Proudhon said workers’ associations would expropriate capitalist property as this was unoccupied and unused directly by its owners.
    Many have made the connection of Marxism with Christian ideas, such as the “force of history” Marx derived from Hegel that was originally the will of God, which he made historical materialism. The future idea of a stateless, classless society achieved somehow after giving the state absolute power and then it “withering away” into the utopia in time.
    Nietzche made this observation, believing that all of Western culture was permeated (or poisoned) by Christian thought, in forms of both slave morality and master morality. He viewed liberalism, nationalism, socialism, communism, anarchism, etc. as influenced or infected by this still, and in his view people have to break away from this and form new values, to go “beyond good and evil” thus becoming the Ubermensch (or “Over man”). Nietzsche fell ill before he was able to go into detail on this last part.
    Ayn Rand also made the same observation visa via socialism or communism (influenced by Nietzsche, though she did not say this). Murray Rothbard as well made the comparison between Marxism and Christian ideology.

  5. Michael, thank you very much for your thoughts, particularly on Proudhon. I couldn’t help appreciate the irony in his view that “workers’ associations would expropriate capitalist property as this was unoccupied and unused directly by its owners.” This indeed happened, but under socialist regimes, as workers and enterprise directors expropriated state property to supplement their incomes.

  6. You’re welcome Robert. Quote: I couldn’t help appreciate the irony in his view that “workers’ associations would expropriate capitalist property as this was unoccupied and unused directly by its owners.” This indeed happened, but under socialist regimes, as workers and enterprise directors expropriated state property to supplement their incomes.
    Yes, and I think he wouldn’t have been surprised. As you say, in these cases it was state property and they were still wage laborers. With the separation of producers from control of production still continuing, we cannot be surprised that as one worker summed up: “We pretend to work and they pretend to pay us.”
    Proudhon knew of state socialism and opposed it utterly. In 1848, he said: “We do not want to see the State confiscate the mines, canals and railways; that would be to add to monarchy, and more wage slavery. We want the mines, canals, railways handed over to democratically organised workers’ associations.”
    For Proudhon, along with all of libertarian socialism, the state owning everything does not change the conditions of production, rather the state is now “the sole employer and sole capitalist” to quote one state socialist. The state socialists do not see this as a problem, believing somehow it will change the character of things. We know this is false, and indeed makes it far worse.
    Proudhon was proposing what now we might call a system of cooperative enterprises with credit unions funding them and hoped to compete away capitalism, as Proudhon accepted the free market, separating them. For him, capitalism was a system of state privilege in favor of capital. Indeed his idea has been called “free market anti-capitalism” by followers.

  7. Having lived more than half my life under communism, I find it really ridiculous when people associate it with atheism. Communism is a form of religion – in ideology, in theory and in practice. It positioned itself against other established religions because they were a form of rivalry for power. When Christianity came to power at the end of the Fourth century, it wiped out all other forms of religions. This doesn’t mean that early Christians were atheists. They were just another form of religion that wanted to get rid of its rivals. The same with communism.
    I find the riview quite convincing. It tells one of those truths that are so often suppressed. Now I surely have to read the book.

  8. Hmm, I respect your view of this, but it is in my humble opinion that you have taken the verses in Acts out of context. One can find so many verses to support just about any view, but then if one were to take those same verses and apply the context from the authorial intent then one would see the truth of the verse. In these verses in Acts it was simply situational, one in which the rest of the church there was not involved. There was an actual physical need, akin to when kids and grandkids move back in with the parents for a period of time. I can however see how these verses were placed in the same basket as communism, but I seriously disagree that this is what Paul was alluding too in Acts.
    I would like to quote from a commentary on Acts by David Guzik taken from, ” (44-45) Their close hearts and sharing in the common life of Jesus.
    Now all who believed were together, and had all things in common, and sold their possessions and goods, and divided them among all, as anyone had need.
    a. Now all who believed were together, and had all things in common: With the influx of more that 3,000 believers, most of whom stayed in Jerusalem and didn’t have jobs, the family of Christians had to share if they were to survive.
    i. We shouldn’t regard this as “early communism,” because it was voluntary, temporary, and flawed to the extent that the church in Jerusalem was in continual need of financial support from other churches. Also, we don’t have any evidence this continued very long.
    b. The Jews had a tremendous custom of hospitality during any major feast like Pentecost; all visitors were received into private homes, and no one could charge for giving a bed or a room to a visitor or for supplying their basic needs. The Christians took this tremendous feast-time hospitality and made it an everyday thing.
    c. Sold their possessions and their goods, and divided them among all, as anyone had need: The power of God is evident here because Jesus became much more important to them than their possessions.”
    So you see, we have to take the whole puzzle into consideration, not just one or two pieces.
    There are some things in life one can just casually participate in, but a study of the Bible is not one of those things. There is so much more to it than just picking it up and reading it. One must know the authors of each book, their intent when writing the book, the audience to whom they were addressing in their time, the culture and language difference. And most importantly, one must make context the most important part of their study.

  9. Hi bpr, thank you for stopping by.

    David Guzik’s claim that the communal arrangement described in Acts wasn’t “early communism” because it was “voluntary, temporary, and flawed” doesn’t hold much water. Communism doesn’t have to be involuntary, permanent, and perfect to be communism. As defined by Merriam-Webster, communism is “a system in which goods are owned in common and are available to all as needed”. This fits the Acts arrangement to a T.

    Even if it was merely a temporary condition, that’s not the way later Christians saw it for nearly two millennia. As I point out in my last paragraph, Christians read 2 Tim. 3:16 and naturally concluded that the Acts social order was something God sanctioned and desired his followers to emulate. If it wasn’t to be emulated, why include it in his timeless Word?

    Even if Christians were mistaken in their interpretation, that doesn’t take away from the fact that it was a major factor in the development of Communism as a modern ideology.

  10. Robert,
    Thanks for the response. A good civil debate is always refreshing. It is nice to be able to express one’s beliefs and have others respect the right for us each to have our own.
    I want to clarify that I wasn’t disputing that many people interpret that passage as being the “birth” of communism.
    Also, taking this passage in context, one must look at the book as a whole. Look at Acts 5:1-10,
    “Now a man named Ananias, together with his wife Sapphira, also sold a piece of property.
    With his wife’s full knowledge he kept back part of the money for himself, but brought the rest and put it at the apostles’ feet.
    Then Peter said, “Ananias, how is it that Satan has so filled your heart that you have lied to the Holy Spirit and have kept for yourself some of the money you received for the land?
    Didn’t it belong to you before it was sold? And after it was sold, wasn’t the money at your disposal? What made you think of doing such a thing? You have not lied to men but to God.”
    When Ananias heard this, he fell down and died. And great fear seized all who heard what had happened.
    Then the young men came forward, wrapped up his body, and carried him out and buried him.
    About three hours later his wife came in, not knowing what had happened.
    Peter asked her, “Tell me, is this the price you and Ananias got for the land?” “Yes,” she said, “that is the price.”
    Peter said to her, “How could you agree to test the Spirit of the Lord? Look! The feet of the men who buried your husband are at the door, and they will carry you out also.”
    At that moment she fell down at his feet and died. Then the young men came in and, finding her dead, carried her out and buried her beside her husband.”
    Now, Ananias and his wife Sapphira made a vow to the God to sell their property and give all the money to the church. They were judged because they broke that vow. Paul even asked them if it belonged to them before, as well as the money belonged to them after they sold the land. He was not scolding them because they didn’t buy into the whole communal property thing, but rather because they lied to God.
    We [Christians] have a huge problem today, many in fact. It is the problem of apathy and complacentcy. Many Christians think they can be “carnal Christians” which doesn’t work. Many Christians don’t even read the Bible and I would bet that you probably know more scripture than I do (but I am studying so watch out). One must actively study the Word of God, not just casually read it looking for something to support our own beliefs or agenda. We [Christians] have given Christ a bad name. We step over the poor on the city streets, flip people off in our cars when they piss us off, and play dirty politics while in office or just put ourselves first before others. We preach fire and brimstone and hurl insults at those who don’t believe the way that we do all the while sinning ourselves. I myslef profess to love God, yet I drink(sometimes to excess) sometimes I curse, my wife (of 15yrs) and I don’t have a great relationship. We love each other, but not like in the letter to the Corinthians. I have a huge problem with anger and cynicism and am basically a smartass. And yet with all my problems (and those listed are just a few), I profess to be a Christian. I also look at the verse that says for us to cast all of our cares on the Lord, but yet I overlook the command for us to go preach and teach and make disciples (the Great Commission). In fact, I am a horrible Christian.
    Each and every sin has the same consequence because they seperate us from the Will of God, but of course all sins don’t have the same punishments. I have been, and am probably still guilty of doing many things that if Jesus was beside me physically, that I wouldn’t do. But, alas, I am human. I am trying which I believe (and hope) is enough on the day I face my God. If I am wrong about there being a God (which I don’t think I am) then no harm done.
    Thanks for being respectful and I hope you have a good day.

  11. Sorry but I forgot to mention that Christians take a lot of the Bible out of context to support our beliefs. I think that Americanized Christianity is a farce, but Christianity, when embraced as it was meant to be is a wonderful thing.

  12. This is an excellent article documenting Communism’s Christian origins. But there are many more passages in the New Testament that support communist ideology than just the passage in Acts which you cited. Indeed, the entire New Testament is saturated with universalism and radical egalitarianism. I have put together a blog dissecting Christianity, and one of the pages concerns this very subject:

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