Christian capitalism and socialism

Greg Paul, whose work on dinosaurs I find most interesting, has a blog entry on the Washington Post site on another kind of dinosaur – Christian socialists. He notes that the current American Christian obsession with capitalism is quite contrary to the early church and possibly Jesus’ own social philosophy, but more in line with that ardent atheist, Ayn Rand’s.

All true. But Greg makes the following passing comment:

But to understand just how non-capitalistic Christianity is supposed to be we turn to the first chapter after the gospels, Acts, which describes the events of the early church. Chapters 2 and 4 state that all “the believers were together and had everything in common. Selling their possessions and goods, they gave to anyone as he had need… No one claimed that any of his possessions was his own, but they shared everything they had…. There were no needy persons among them. 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.”

Now folks, that’s outright socialism of the type described millennia later by Marx – who likely got the general idea from the gospels.

Actually, no, I doubt Marx got it from the Gospels. More than likely his immediate source was the utopian socialism of the European movements of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, which in all probability came from the Moravian Brethren and the Diggers and Levellers of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Tracing these sorts of influences in history is hard (as Marx himself knew), but the Levellers and Diggers in particular have been identified by historian Christopher Hill as proto-Marxists. Both Marx and Engels referred to them in several works, for example The German Ideology Bk II, ch 1.

The influence of the Gospels on modern thought is both protean and procrustean. It is protean in that, as with the entirety of sacred writings, it can be made to support any and all social philosophies, and so it explains almost nothing about them. It is procrustean in that each generation trims the sacred writings to serve the current economic, social and ideological interests. In that respect, Marx was right on. Appealing to the Bible (or any other single source) to explain social movements, as if all we needed was the right intellectual trigger to behave in a certain fashion, is a case of “false consciousness“.

That said, I agree with the main thesis Greg puts out there.

7 thoughts on “Christian capitalism and socialism

  1. “When Adam dwelved and Eve spun,
    Who was then the gentleman?”

    The Diggers and the Levellers themselves can easily be mooted to be influenced by Christian socialism, in a tradition that goes right back to the medieval peasant revolts, some orders like the Franciscans, and beyond. One can moot such a long connection leading to Marx. Kropotkin was Christian, many others of that milieu were too.

    Equally, one can moot a Judaistic connection, since social justice is remarked upon in Talmud and Mishnah. Engels and Marx were both Jewish, and would have been aware of that tradition.


    1. Eve span, not spun, although she may have spun also once she realised that she and Adam were naked. “Span” meant “To allure, entice, or draw away” (OED), i.e., Adam from righteousness.

      Late note: In the original from 1399 it’s “When Adam dalfe and Eue spane. Whare was þan þe pride of man?” acc. to the Oxford English Dictionary. “þ” is a thorn, so “th”.


      1. I dunno about that definition of “span”, John. “Dalfe” sayeth this source (pdf) means “dug”. Digging is not an activity Adam would have engaged in pre-Fall, suggesting that “span” is intended as a past tense of “spin” as in spinning yarn.


  2. Aren’t you sort of supporting his point. Marx might have got it second hand – but obviously the Diggers communism was taken straight from Acts.


    1. Well that’s what they said, but then the Roman church, and the Royalists, said they got their political philosophies from the same sources (for example, Filmer’s Patriarcha).

      The Diggers and Levellers are rural reactionaries objecting to the control over their lives by urban elites. They may as easily (and more mediately) got their egalitarianism from the Albigensians (no, I’m not suggesting they did, but communitarianism was widespread through the late medieval and early renaissance world). Once they have their dispositions, then they justify it anyway they can, and of course using sources like the Bible (“who then was the gentleman?”) will affect and modulate these economic necessities, but to say the idea of communitarianism comes from the Bible is like saying that the modern view of heliocentrism does. It requires considerable filtering of all the social philosophy in the Bible that does not lead to communitarian ideals.


  3. “got the general idea from the gospels”

    Leaving aside the difficulty of tracing ideas, I just want to point out how vague the above comment is, and that it is totally consistent with the bible being “bother protean and procrustean”, which is itself consistent with some liberal interpretations of sacred texts. I get the feeling that in liberal Judiasm, the bible (or perhaps more specifically, Biblical scholarship and the tales of prophets) is treated basically as a philosophical cannon — and so it’s pretty mundane to say that someone got a “general idea” for something from those texts.


  4. Tracing social movements back to particular texts is problematic, not only because specific historical conditions structure what people think and do, but because these same circumstances also largely determine how they read old books. When you try to define the influence of a scripture, what largely matters is the scripture as received, what the current tradition allows the reader to hear in the old voices. The tradition isn’t monolithic, however. For example, the communitarian message of Acts lived on in monasticism and various popular movements and heresies even if Christian societies at large figured out how to finesse it away at a very early stage.

    It seems to me that the deep connection between Marxism and Christianity is structural, not textural. Marx completed the secular reinterpretation of the central Christian theme of incarnation that Hegel had begun: Christ as Prometheus.


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