By Andrew Cuff
The socialists of the late nineteenth century realized that their ideas would have no staying power or cultural impact unless they took a cue from Christians and began to catechize the youth. They chose perhaps the dullest of all methods: enrolling children in “Socialist Sunday School” (SSS), which for the children was just as wretched as it sounds. A book of socialist hymns and nursery rhymes was made up, containing such gems as a “Hickory, Dickory, Dock” travesty about a little girl oppressed by her money-grubbing factory boss. There were an official socialist Ten Commandments, a socialist Pilgrim’s Progress about a worker’s quest for classless utopia, and a socialist children’s magazine (The Young Socialist) to communicate directly with the next generation. One issue of this magazine from June 1926 was perturbed by its readers’ lack of interest: “I suppose it is because you all have been so excited by the Strike that I have received no solutions for last month’s puzzle picture.”  The SSS eventually went extinct, although its most doltish traditions certainly live on in British and American public schools.
In the twentieth century, the lines between Christianity and socialism were blurred by the “Christian socialist” movements that eschewed Marx-style iconoclasm, preferring to recast genuine Christianity in service of socialist ideology. In both Europe and America, institutions and political organizations of Christian socialists loudly advocated the redistribution of wealth and the end of private property. Communes and brotherhoods were founded, experiments in human nature and utopia to test the ideas of socialist Christians like John Ruskin, Francis Bellamy, and Thomas Hughes. The movement’s legacy is present today in seven decades of European Democratic Socialism, and some have drawn parallels between Christian socialism and the social magisterium of twentieth-century Roman Catholicism.
The early socialists’ mission has continued to the present day, as modern socialists often herald their political ideology as the only true Christianity. Mikhail Gorbachev claimed in 1992: “Jesus was the first socialist, the first to seek a better life for mankind.”  Despite the fall of Gorbachev’s “utopia”, such arguments are common today. For example, Occidental College professor Peter Dreier argued in the Huffington Post that “Jesus Was a Socialist” and true Christians must dedicate themselves to fighting big business, stock traders, and especially the “staunch capitalist Donald Trump.” As a lifelong Jew, Dreier’s “my fellow Christians” appeal is somewhat disingenuous, but that of prominent Eastern Orthodox theologian David Bentley Hart is not: in a series of articles for the New York Times and Commonweal Magazine, Hart trenchantly rejected any compatibility between Christianity and capitalism. His personal translation of the New Testament for Yale University Press became a part of his argument that socialism literally is Christianity: the principal purpose of both is to condemn all private property (the “old law”) and prescribe communal living (the “kingdom of heaven”). American politicians now commonly use Christian scripture and theology to defend election platforms and legislative proposals that are indistinguishable from historical socialism.
A considerable body of literature has nuanced the ostensible syncretism between Christianity and socialism: their shared genre of eschatological historiography, their history of subversive challenge to institutions on behalf of the poor, and their moral rebuke to greed, exploitation, and alienation. Defenses of Christianity rightly denounce the moral missteps of socialism: its totalized state, its rejection of personal ownership, and its denial of fallen human nature. Yet few have mounted a rebuttal that accounts for the radical communitarian metaphysics underlying orthodox Christian social thought. In what follows, we will deploy the resources of pre-modern Christian theology against socialism’s secular eschatology and utopianism, without propping up any of modernity’s equally aberrant individualisms.
The fact is, values with a socialist “ring” to them are embedded in the textual tradition and phronema of Christianity. There is a wholesale denunciation of greed and excess riches in writings as early as Job and Proverbs. Christ’s sermon on the mount and his binary division of human beings into moral categories of “the rich” and “the poor” would immediately garner a “radical socialist” label for any modern politician. James, his brother, the first bishop of Jerusalem, wrote polemics that could have been embraced by Friedrich Engels: “Come now, you rich, weep and howl for the miseries that are coming upon you...the wages of the laborers who picked your fields cry out…” (James 5). And the early Christian communities in the Acts of the Apostles who “had all things in common” idealized the best of what socialism purports to be.
Many Church Fathers seem to have been friendly to anti-wealth and class-antagonism readings of scripture. Sweeping condemnations of inherited wealth and even commerce, along with declarations that all creation is owned commonly, appear in both Latin and Greek fathers—from Ambrose, Augustine, and Jerome, to Gregory of Nyssa, John Chrysostom, Basil of Caesarea, and Clement of Alexandria. So prevalent are these ideas among patristic sources that an early opponent of socialist theory, Catholic theologian John A. Ryan, felt compelled to publish a lengthy tract in 1913 entitled “Alleged Socialism of the Church Fathers.” In it, Ryan makes fine distinctions between types of wealth, calls attention to figurative language, and overall defends private property as a patristic ideal. He also relies heavily on the natural law theory present in Papal Encyclicals on social thought, especially those of Pope Leo XIII.
The question that was obvious to Ryan and others is whether Biblical and early church writings constitute a Christian heritage of socialism, or rather if socialist eisegesis has warped modern readings. Because academics and institutional churches have often approached socialist theory under the influence of political activism, popular opinion, corporate influence, and other factors in the rapidly-changing world of the 20th century, it is very difficult to determine what is socialist and what is socialist-sounding. It can be just as difficult to determine what is Christian and what is Christian-sounding. A close look at how one socialist agitator and professing Christian answered these questions in the 1960s will reveal just how intertwined the two worldviews had become.
That activist was Dorothy Day, who for her myriad devotees is the “patron saint” of Christian socialism. A convert to Catholicism, Day never lost her exuberance for the confluence between Christian praxis and Socialist ideology, even though she rejected some of its key tenets. Day explained her support for Fidel Castro’s socialist revolution in Cuba in an article for her Catholic Worker magazine in 1961. While she mourned the anti-religious elements of socialism and communism, Day celebrated their concern for the poor. Ultimately, she supported the regime that persecuted the Catholic Church in Cuba because, in her eyes, it more authentically supported Christianity’s mission to the less fortunate. Concluding her defense of the Cuban Revolution, Day paradoxically proclaimed, “God Bless the priests and people of Cuba. God bless Castro and all those who are seeing Christ in the poor.” 
Dorothy Day here demonstrates the attitude that what is good in socialism and communism can be extracted from what is bad. But are the impulses of socialist thinkers the same as Christ’s injunctions to be mindful of the poor? Is it possible to have a Christian socialism that rejects anti-religious elements in the broader movement, but espouses a progressive liberation theology in pursuit of Christ’s eschatological promises?
Day, of course, was not the first or last to answer yes. The marriage of Christianity and socialism goes back as far as socialist political philosophy itself. Early Christian socialists affirmed a direct, harmonious link between the two. In 1888, a concerned prelate, the Rev. William J. Cooke, recorded some of his contemporaries’ proclamations:
“As the oak springs from the acorn, so may socialism be traced to Christianity … pure Christianity, as taught by Him Whom men call God and Saviour, leads us inevitably to Communism … the only modern scene where the central ideas are the rights of humanity against scientific arrangements, the raising of the low, the protection of the weak, the abasement of iniquity in high places, and the glorious liberty of this new Gospel preached to the poor.” 
Rev. Cooke refuted the revisionist history that early Church communal life matched the socialist politics of his day, and reminded his readers that Peter affirmed private property in his rebuke of Ananias.
In the 21st century, the emphasis upon socialism’s kindred spirit to Christianity has continued, even if the atrocities committed in the attempt to reify socialism’s vision have forced Christians to add caveats. For instance, Bishop Marcelo Sanchez Sorondo, the chancellor of the Pontifical Academy of Social Sciences, declared in 2018 that the Chinese government is the best exemplar of Catholic social teaching. However, attempting to avoid scandal, he assured his fellow Christians that the infamously anti-religious and anti-family government has evolved from its “bad” days during John Paul II’s pontificate. Ignoring the oppression and atheism in China, Sorondo highlighted the government’s elevation of the common good in contrast to the rampant individualism of the West. To this day the undesirable elements of socialism are, in Christian sympathizers’ eyes, non-essential and able to be removed without damage to the whole, its historical catastrophes notwithstanding.
No -isms, no political or philosophical systems, can be isomorphically compared with Christianity. The former are ideological, the latter is spiritual. Every -ism has a sort of origin in either Christianity or some earlier, eventually Christianized belief system like the Hebrew scriptures or pagan myths. But the core belief of socialism, its collectivist optimism, rests on a nostrum about human nature that is fundamentally at odds with Christianity. Indeed, the founding falsehood of socialism is the same antelapsarian state taught in both Judaism and Christianity, the Garden of Eden, where all was shared and there was no scarcity or competition. Then came the fall: but not for socialist progressives. To be sure, some humans behave selfishly, but these miscreants are a bug, not a feature, of the human race. If they can be eliminated, humanity can progress beyond any state of nature or historical period, to a bright future where we return to Eden. This utopia—the anthropological basis of socialism—is not entirely false. It is much the same as the new heaven and new earth described in Christian revelation. However, like the Tower of Babel which tried to reach heaven through human effort, it is doomed in one respect: its humanism.
The doom that awaits all human effort was always a feature of pagan literature. Inevitable fate and the futility of man’s works pervades mythological narratives from cultures across the world. The Greeks, both philosophers and poets, asserted time and again that humans could not escape their destinies, that what was written by stars and foretold by oracles would unfailingly come to pass. It was futile not only to try to change an outcome, but to do anything at all: the infernal myths of Sisyphus and his boulder, or the Danaides and their bathtub, starkly depict the doctrine of futility. In the east, an equally ancient tradition emerged among Assyrian cultures, whose belief in the Irkallu (an afterlife of eternal torment) was inescapable for all, neither a punishment nor a reward. The Vedic Philosophy which arose in India and swept the Far East taught Karma, a moral destiny of inexorable cause and effect, and Vairagya, the dispassionate renunciation of desire. Northern European doom was perhaps the most striking: poems like The Battle of Maldon and Beowulf echo the pervasive sentiment that life’s goal and fulfillment was to struggle intensely, but ultimately accept life’s futility. As J. R. R. Tolkien wrote in The Monsters and the Critics, “[Beowulf] is a man, and that for him and many is sufficient tragedy.” 
The Judeo-Christian contribution to this univocal human assumption of repetitive futility is the difference between a circle and a slanted line. The circle of history repeats endlessly; man is completely without true agency because his decisions are futile. Some early Greek philosophers like Epicurus identified the shortcomings of a philosophical system without free choice, but never offered a non-deterministic model to replace cyclical time. Consider the ubiquitous symbol of the orouboros: the world-serpent shared by Egyptian, Greek, Hindu, and Norse mythology eats his own tail, representing a complete, inescapable loop of history. When Christianity introduced a line, progressing upward to an apocalyptic end of history, it was a philosophical revolution. Human hope springs eternal from change; especially when that change is the design and providence of a personal God.
The Circle and the Line would make a terrible book title, so when the distinguished Renaissance historian C. A. Patrides wrote about cyclical and linear time, he entitled his treatise The Phoenix and the Ladder: the Rise and Decline of the Christian View of History. The phoenix lives its earthly life anew each time it experiences death; the ladder (from Jacob to St. John Climacus) transports humanity to heaven. Patrides’ 1960 monograph, which compares pagan philosophy of history to Judeo-Christian, is an inexhaustible treasure-trove of over one hundred texts in chronological order from antiquity to early modernity. With the exception of the Ecclesiastes author, whose “vanity of vanities” pessimism Patrides calls “obviously schismatic”, there emerges a clear and transformative Hebrew contribution to western cosmology: the providence of God in history, and even more importantly, the promise of His future plan.
Although Patrides stops just short of the period when the philosophy of history became most impactful on world events—that is, the advent of Whig history, Hegelian history, and what C. S. Lewis called “chronological snobbery”—readers of The Phoenix and the Ladder are inevitably prompted to ponder the legacy of the circle and the line in our day. When Carl Schmitt argued that theories of the state are secularized theologies, he implied that their prescriptions emerged from their philosophy of history. As St. Paul pointed out, “If there is no resurrection... our preaching is useless.” One might as accurately say, “if history is not progressing toward something, our laws and elections and diplomacy are useless.”
The political tumult of the modern period, socialist movements especially, are secularized versions of the Christian eschaton. As Eric Voegelin famously explained, history does have an eidos, or structure, but the imposition (“immanentization”) of such a structure by force is responsible for the turmoil of all modern political ideologies. Rejection of an earthly eidos, on the other hand, is fundamental to Christian theological politics, best exemplified in the Spe Salvi encyclical of Pope Benedict XVI.
Patrides’ historical work was an outgrowth of the political debates among his colleagues. “Dino” declared himself a life-long anti-communist, even if, as a young boy, he had helped the communist-fueled Greek resistance to the Nazi invasion. After his experience with the Greek communists, he left his native country behind for literary studies at Kenyon College under John Crowe Ransom, the southern poet and literary critic who had achieved fame as a founding father of both New Criticism and Agrarianism. During the 1930s, Ransom had spearheaded the Nashville Agrarians’ explosive manifesto, I’ll Take My Stand: The South and Agrarian Tradition (1930). Significantly, the manifesto had begun life under a different title, “Tracts Against Communism.” While the Agrarians are primarily known as critics of industrialism, they also saw themselves as defenders of a traditional, Christian, humane life against both the right-wing Hegelian utopianism of technocratic capitalism and the left-wing Hegelian utopianism of communistic socialism.
Both of these modern secularized political theologies represent a desperate, anthropocentric attempt to bring about a promised golden age without the Incarnation. Socialism, both pre- and post-Marx, has inspired countless commune movements since the mid-nineteenth century. These commune movements tried to “hold all things in common” like the early Church, but distorted Christian social teaching into bizarre, experimental micro-societies. For instance, in the pre-Marxist socialist commune of Oneida, New York, members believed that Christ’s second coming had already occurred, paving the way for humanity itself to bring about heaven on earth. Sharing all things in common included the overt destruction of the traditional family: the Oneidans practiced free love and raised their children communally in order to actively discourage close parent-child and husband-wife relationships. Most fantastically, these “Christian socialists” believed they could breed away sin and moral weakness, justifying their eugenics experimentations. The heretical eschatology of socialist political theology corrupted its morality.
In the years leading up to the Bolshevik Revolution, Russian novelist Leo Tolstoy was the inspiration behind dozens of these commune groups across the globe. Excommunicated for heresy by the Orthodox Church, Tolstoy preached that Christianity had been misunderstood by centuries of Christians, establishing an institutional church not part of Christ, who in Tolstoy’s mind was more of a social justice guru. For Tolstoy, Christ was primarily to be found in the Sermon on the Mount, and not in miracles or in dogma: “The Sermon on the Mount, or the Creed. One cannot believe in both. And Churchmen have chosen the latter.” 
Locating Christian truth in Christ’s social teachings exclusively also impacted Tolstoy’s understanding of the Christian view of history. Rather than seek salvation and perfection in heaven, Tolstoy preached perfection on earth through socially-focused good works, rejecting any concept of original sin. At the end of his book, The Kingdom of Heaven is Within You, Tolstoy enthusiastically prophesied that the real Christian society would inevitably come, as an ever-more enlightened humanity would see through the corruption, lies, and oppression of millennia:
“So that the prophecy that the time will come when men will be taught of God, will learn war no more, will beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into reaping-hooks, which means, translating it into our language, the fortresses, prisons, barracks, palaces, and churches will remain empty, and all the gibbets and guns and cannons will be left unused, is no longer a dream, but the definite new form of life to which mankind is approaching with ever-increasing rapidity.” 
Tolstoy removes the Incarnation and Christ’s second coming from the history of man’s salvation, triumphantly proclaiming, “Men cannot know when the day and the hour of the kingdom of God will come, because its coming depends on themselves alone.”  The socialist communes that sprang up around his teachings were attempting to immanentize the eschaton, making heaven a place on earth. While these communes might be extreme examples of syncretism, their relocation of the Kingdom of Heaven to here and now is the essence of socialism: nothing more than a gross distortion of the Christian view of history.
But exclusively blaming Marx and other socialist thinkers like Tolstoy for the general impulse of de-Christianized eschatology is historically uninformed. After all, did Christianity not face similarly heretical philosophies of history at its inception? Premillennial chiliasm and Marcionism, both of which have now re-arisen in new modern forms, plagued orthodox theologians until the early fifth century. Arguably, the Christian conception of history was more imperiled in late antiquity than its conception of Trinitarian divinity. The Arians were numerous, educated, and influential—but none of them provoked apocalyptic fear or gnostic antinomianism as did the historiographical heresies.
The medieval church faced a whole catalogue of similar heresies, at first surrounding the millennialist fears of A.D. 1000, and then from the radical poverty movements of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. Those who have watched Ingmar Bergman’s classic The Seventh Seal remember how the tumultuous happenings of the high Middle Ages—witchcraft, crusade, plague—contributed to this pandemonium. But some of the foment was also embraced as orthodox reform and integrated by the Church, such as Francis of Assisi’s mendicants, officially sanctioned by Pope Innocent III.
However, the most important medieval figure at the center of this movement was not Francis, but one of his precursors, an erstwhile Cistercian abbot named Joachim of Fiore. The twelfth-century ascetic and exegete became widely known for dividing history into three ages: the age of the Father before Christ’s incarnation, that of the Son where the Church reigns, and most controversially, the coming age of the Holy Spirit, when the authority of the Church would give way to a “common brotherhood” not unlike Marx’s “classless utopia.” Joachim featured prominently in Eric Voegelin’s The New Science of Politics as the medieval thinker who prophesied Voegelin’s concept of political eschaton.
Although New Science lacked recourse to today’s medieval scholarship, and thus mistakes Joachim for a heretical gnostic, its thesis connecting Joachim to the later developments of Hegel and Marx is undeniable. Even in his own day, Joachim’s interpreters used his thought as a vehicle for revolutionary movements that sought to redistribute wealth, kill the wealthy, destroy patriarchal and traditional institutions like monarchy and episcopacy, and institute mob rule. Jacobinism, Bolshevism, and Maoism were clearly heralded by such movements, and perhaps by Lutheranism as well, to the extent that Luther’s institutional iconoclasm was millenarian and influenced by Joachimism. The fourteenth-century fraticelli uprising depicted by Umberto Eco in The Name of the Rose looks suspiciously like the Red Brigades terrorizing Italy at the time he wrote.
Whether medieval or modern, progressives have always promised the essentially Christian vision of liberation, particularly for the poor. In their view, liberation can only be accomplished by violently wresting private property from the hands of the wealthy, but bloody revolutions face many obstacles. First, the institutions that serve as the guardians of traditional values and property must be shattered, along with the wealth and political status of those with European ancestry. This is the origin of the commonplace phrase “cultural Marxism.” Marxism is political economics, but its ramifications for a culture are encapsulated by what is now called progressivism. Ironically, though Marxism and other types of socialism rely on a Christian intellectual heritage, socialism inevitably subverts Christianity through its attacks on Church, family, and western heritage.
This two-pronged subversion came to the fore when Marx and his critics treated the so-called “agrarian question.” Put simply, there was a contradiction within Marxist determinism when it came to agrarian societies that had not fully industrialized. Like factory workers, serfs and other rural laborers were a sort of proletariat, but they were of an entirely different character. Geographic and social factors immunized them to the deleterious cultural effects of urbanization and atomization, rendering them a dangerous reactionary element in the eyes of Marxists. They would impede both capitalism, the destructive force that led to revolution, and the eventual revolution itself. Content to live within their means in traditional modes, the landed peasantry would prove resilient—much like the “doughty” hobbits of J.R.R. Tolkien’s Middle-Earth.
But now, as rural populations dwindle and “agrarian” production is just another facet of corporate industry, we are left with a stale false dichotomy between capitalism and socialism. Generations who have suffered from their parents’ “Age of Aquarius” now reject the threadbare optimism of both right- and left-wing progressivism. Political optimism and utopianism are giving way to anthropological realism and dogma, even on the left. “Liberals” have become frantic to control human behavior while “conservatives” have given up trying to conserve anything except last decade’s liberalism. Twenty-first century man hungers for something deeper: many millennials and their younger successors are turning to tradition, sacrality, authority, and mythology. The prevailing order attacks these illiberal stirrings as “identity politics”, or splutters that the younger generations “have forgotten the horrors of the past.” But few are listening.
Thus, the battle between socialism and its rivals must be completely reformulated for a twenty-first century audience. Because socialism is a parasite on the Christian order, the only authentic way to answer the rising demand for socialism is to re-establish a Christian order. As Cleanth Brooks noted in his “Plea to the Protestant Churches” in 1936, this will “not necessitate the suppression of the social gospel, though it would involve deciding what sort of social gospel is Christian and what is not. It would not demand cessation of a radical criticism of the present economic order, though it would involve relating that criticism to a positive conception of a Christian society.”  For conservatives, Brooks’ challenge will require deep soul searching: the givens of Enlightenment figures such as Rousseau, Locke, Hobbes, and even Jefferson must be critically re-evaluated, despite their enshrined status as American sacred scripture. This might seem a call to shake the foundations: anti-conservative. However, the truth is that there are no modern foundations to conserve, since modernity is built upon the ruin of the old order; sand, not rock.
What will emerge from the rubble, nobody can predict. There is no antiquarian’s chance to reconstitute a past golden age, and nostalgia is no path through the Scylla and Charybdis of individualism and collectivism. Yet this much is evident: as Western Civilization’s decadent phase devolves into increasing alienation and animosity, its sufferers will more sharply sense how tired they are of being reduced to unnatural atomization. They will cry out for socialism because it is the only menu option that seems to oppose individualism. Like all heretics, socialists err from an abundance of sincerity, not a lack.
Many oppose socialism by numbering its human casualties or hyperventilating about “bread lines.” Memes that mock naïve socialist politicians are funny, but only confirm their supporters’ experience of ostracization, disenfranchisement, and alienation. Christians are the only force that can truly combat socialism, because only orthodoxy provides an alternative to modernity. The second coming and eternal reign of Christ is a literal, true eschatology, of which socialism offers just a mirage. To the Christian, socialists are simply heretics: they have “exchanged the glory of the incorruptible God for an image made to look like mortal man” (Rom. 1:23).
This essay was included in Volume I of The Dissident Review, available in paperback on Amazon.
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