Tag Archives: Engels

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?

Christian apologist and historian David Aikman, debunked

In a recent discussion, Arizona Atheist pointed me to one Dr. David Aikman, a Christian author and Russian history expert.  Dr. Aikman has written probably the most extensive case why atheism is to be blamed for all the nasty deeds of the 20th century’s murderous dictators.  Since I’ve never come across any such expert during my Russia studies – or the years after – I was eager to read what Dr. Aikman had to say.

I was not impressed.  In fact, I think Dr. Aikman is purposely misleading.  Incensed at his (ab)use of history for apologetic ends, I’ve decided to write and let him know exactly why his case is so bad, if not fraudulent.  And because my posts on the topic of atheism, communism and the totalitarian regimes of the 20th century remain the most popular by far here, I’m posting my letter below for all to read.


Dear Dr. Aikman,

Because I have a background in Russian studies (Master of Arts, Georgetown University, 1996) and have written on the alleged link between atheism and the atrocities committed by the totalitarian regimes of the 20th century, your work has been pointed out to me as establishing such a link.  During my studies at Georgetown, the notion that atheism was the basis of it all was never brought up, even within the scholarly literature, like  Hannah Arendt’s classic, Totalitarianism, and I only encountered it from Christians such as yourself some years later.  But unlike your theological counterparts, you have the distinction as someone who has a scholarly background in the field of Russian studies, so I was very interested in your arguments.  Though I know you’re a committed Christian, which would certainly color your writings, I expected a respectable treatment of the question.

The only place I can find where you lay out your arguments in some depth is in your book The Delusion of Disbelief, particularly the chapter entitled, “The Problem of Wicked Atheists: Stalin, Hitler, Mao, and Pol Pot”.  After reading it, I was so disappointed that I can only ponder your credentials as a scholar.  It seems to me, Dr. Aikman, that your work is simply a continuation of that hoary age-old Christian known as pious fraud.

While your arguments may contain a facade of credibility to the layman, to one with any degree of knowledge of Russian history and communist ideology, it’s abundantly clear it is nothing more than a Potemkin Village.  Specifically, you cherry-pick bit and pieces of history to build your case, ignoring vast other swathes of evidence which fatally weaken it.  It can be readily debunked by pointing out a few arguments and facts which you conveniently leave out.  While such is to be expected from someone who possesses only the barest knowledge of Russian history, like Dinesh D’Souza, it simply boggles the mind that you, as a purported expert in this subject, would pass this effort off as a serious treatment.

Your key error is to conflate irreligious sentiment and atheism.  Indeed, this is a linkage that undergirds your entire chapter.  “[T]he greatest totalitarian evils, communism and Nazism, both grew out of a sustained philosophical rebellion against religious faith-in essence, atheism.” (pg. 101)  This is ridiculous. As you acknowledge, even deists were irreligious.  And while you-falsely–attempt to portray the Reign of Terror as aimed chiefly at believers, you fail to inform the reader that its chief instigator was a committed deist, Maximillian Robespierre.  Whenever a communist or Nazi says something bad about religion, you reflexively categorize it as an atheist sentiment (e.g., p. 109).  By that logic, Thomas Jefferson was an atheist for observing that, “In every country and in every age, the priest has been hostile to liberty. He is always in alliance with the despot, abetting his abuses in return for protection to his own.”

In support of this canard, you do what many other Christians do: focus on the persecution of believers.  For shame!  You know full well that believers were but a subset of the entire category of the murdered and oppressed.  The civil war?  The Ukrainian famine? The purges? Collectivization?  Is your memory beginning to recollect now, Dr. Aikman?  Or were these merely irrelevant sideshows?  Atheists killing other atheists;  rather difficult to explain under your narrative of atheism=irreligion.

Emblematic of your myopia is your kid-gloves treatment of the Russian Orthodox Church, which you portray as some innocent whipping boy of the Bolsheviks. Again, the full truth is inconvenient to your tale.  You’re undoubtedly aware that the Church was a practical subsidiary of the tsars, supporting the regime in its every reaction against modernity. And then there is the little matter of the Church’s support for the Whites during the Russian civil war (1917-1921).  A little relevant to the Bolshevik’s animosity toward the Church, don’t you think?  Apparently not, for you baldly state “Lenin would not let up on religion, even when it was quite obvious that religious opposition in no way posed any kind of threat to his regime.” (emphasis mine)  Perhaps it’s time to re-take Russian History 101.

Your treatment of the origins of Marxian communism suffers from the same amnesia.  It stuns me that you, an expert on Marxism, spare nary a word on the central organizing idea behind communism: the elimination of private property.  As Engels wrote, “In fact, the abolition of private property is, doubtless, the shortest and most significant way to characterize the revolution in the whole social order which has been made necessary by the development of industry – and for this reason it is rightly advanced by communists as their main demand.”  Actually, once we begin to uncover the basis of this “main demand,” the mystery of your amnesia is revealed.  Remember Pierre-Joseph Proudhon?  He’s the guy who wrote What is Property?, a tremendously influential work not just on Marx and Engels but on the whole communist movement.  You don’t discuss him in your chapter, and for good reason, for his belief that “property is theft” comes from a familiar source.  As he wrote, “My real masters, those who have caused fertile ideas to spring up in my mind, are three in number: first, the Bible; next, Adam Smith; and last, Hegel.” (emphasis mine)

Many of the world’s most renowned political theorists, economists, and philosophers-even our own Founding Fathers–have remarked on the indelible link between private property and freedom.  To completely ignore the topic in any discussion on totalitarian tyranny strongly suggests you disagree with their sentiments, like the one expressed by John Adams, who said,

The moment the idea is admitted into society that property is not as sacred as the laws of God, and that there is not a force of law and public justice to protect it, anarchy and tyranny commence. If ‘Thou shalt not covet” and ‘Thou shalt not steal’ were not commandments of Heaven, they must be made inviolable precepts in every society before it can be civilized or made free.

Who is right?  Proudhon or Adams?  Never mind; we need not know the answer.  Agreeing with either fatally destroys your case.

If there remains a doubt in anyone’s mind how foolish your case actually is, allow me to erase it with one final quote (pg. 114):  “The Soviet experience thoroughly demonstrates that if God is eliminated from public life, a much worse deity inevitably is erected in his [sic] place.”  What is this “worse deity” you speak of in Sweden?  Japan?  Denmark?  Perhaps this is true on whatever planet you inhabit, but on planet Earth, reality is far different.

Dr. Aikman, your case is built on a tendentious recollection of history, one made worse by the fact it was purposely done, in full awareness of facts which contradict your argument.  That objective scholars have never supported your view is a glaring silence you must address.  “Thou shalt not bear false witness,” Dr. Aikman.  It seems there are some things you need remind yourself beyond just history.

Was atheism the cause of 20th century atrocities?

A printer-friendly PDF version of this document is available here.

Introduction

It is a frequent rejoinder and polemic hurled about by religious apologists.  Yes, certain murderous excesses like crusades, inquisitions, and witch hunts may have been committed by the religious, but they pale in comparison to those done in the cause of atheism.  Stalin, Hitler, Mao, Pol Pot-strident atheists all whose famines, wars, genocides, and purges created magnitudes more dead.  Consider, for example, these words from militant Christian cheerleader, Dinesh D’Souza:

These figures are tragic, and of course population levels were much lower at the time. But even so, they are minuscule compared with the death tolls produced by the atheist despotisms of the 20th century. In the name of creating their version of a religion-free utopia, Adolf Hitler, Joseph Stalin, and Mao Zedong produced the kind of mass slaughter that no Inquisitor could possibly match. Collectively these atheist tyrants murdered more than 100 million people.

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