Communism

A name given to any economic scheme which advocates common ownership of property to the exclusion of private ownership of property. Obviously, in actual life situations neither course can be pursued absolutely, but any structure of communal living which accents the sharing of goods by all alike may be considered a manifestation of communism. Communism is not merely an economic theory; it has significant philosophical and even religious implications. The myth of a “golden age” when men had all things in common is found in many religions, and the thought that all men should be treated as equals has inspired some of the noblest philosophical ideals; and it is with such myths and ideals that communistic schemes have been associated throughout the ages of human history. Even the Marxist-Leninist form of Russian communism, though political in character, rests on assumptions which have religious overtones.

As for Christianity, in its earliest manifestations of fellowship and devotion, provision for the poor, not as an economic program but as an expression of worship, was a central concern. The report of a free-will sharing of goods in the mother church at Jerusalem (Acts 2:42f.; 4:32f.) is understood by the sacred historian as a manifestation of the work of the Holy Spirit (Acts 5:3), though scholars have suggested that such imprudent enthusiasm contributed to the indigence of the Jerusalem community which Paul later sought to alleviate with an offering from the Gentile churches (1 Cor. 16).

Many times this example in the early church of “having all things common” has been appealed to, especially when the church has been tempted by temporal wealth and material possessions to identify with the world. This appeal has been variously united in the different ages of Christian history with a Greek depreciation of matter, a Stoic emphasis on natural law, and an apocalyptic enthusiasm which sits lightly by all worldly possessions. While the church as a whole has condemned luxury and protested social inequality, it is only in the inner circle of the ascetic elite, beginning with the ancient anchorites* and later in the monastic orders, that the common possession of goods and the renunciation of private property have been carried through with consistency. The monastic lifestyle has always been for the Roman Catholic Church the ideal; held in a kind of critical balance with the so- called compromise ethic by which the devout layman is allowed to live.

In the late Middle Ages, the heirs of the Franciscan spiritualists within the church, and the heretical sectarians outside the church, formed protest groups against the wealthy institutional church. These parachurch groups often embraced laymen (e.g., the Brethren of the Common Life*) who practiced a mutual sharing of goods, not from commitment to any economic theory, but by a common devotion to the ideal of apostolic poverty. Alongside such essentially religious developments, Christian history also reflects sociological movements of a more revolutionary nature. In the late Middle Ages and at the time of the Reformation there were protests by the peasants against feudal class distinctions and the rigorous exactions of ecclesiastical law, especially the law of the double tithe.

Negotiating Peter's Pence* and other matters of papal finance on behalf of the British crown, John Wycliffe became convinced of the scriptural warrant for a communistic society. Such a society could be achieved only by grace, according to Wycliffe; but in Bohemia, where his thought was influential, the more radical Hussites (Taborites) advocated revolutionary change of the economic order (early 1400s). No permanent new structures were attained, however, because of the military reverses which they suffered.

At the time of the Reformation the communism practiced by the radical Anabaptists* of Münster (1534/35) proved short-lived, but that of the Hutter Brethren (Jacob Hutter was burned in 1536) has endured even to the present in the Hutterite* colonies of the New World, making them the oldest communistic societies in history.

The best-known romantic apology for a communistic state is Thomas More's* Utopia (1516), comparable in many ways to Plato's Republic, though More rejected Plato's community of wives. The government of Utopia is democratic in form; a community of goods prevails, the magistrates distribute the instruments of production among the inhabitants, and dispense the wealth resulting from their labors to all citizens equally. All wealth and ostentation is proscribed in this ideal Christian state. More expresses a keen sympathy for the poor in their helpless misery (though, anomalously, slaves are found in Utopia to perform the toilsome, dangerous, and offensive forms of labor). “The rich,” complains More, “desire every means by which they may, in the first place, secure to themselves what they have amassed by wrong; and then take to their own use and profit, at the lowest possible price, the work and labor of the poor; and as soon as the rich decide on adopting these devices in the name of the public, then they become law.” In this stricture More strikes a note found in virtually all subsequent forms of communistic social agitation.

Of the various communistic experiments in the English- speaking world, arising out of some form of the Christian vision (e.g., Diggers* of Cromwellian England), the most numerous and enduring have been those that moved to America from the end of the eighteenth century (Shakers,* Harmony Society,* the Amana* community, the Owenite communities, the Fourierist communities, the Icarian communities). There have also been indigenous societies in the United States such as the Perfectionists of Oneida, New York. In the 1970s there is a recrudescence of interest in communal living throughout the free world, especially among the youth. While traditional Christian values of fellowship and equality inform the ideals of many who participate in these youthful communes, there is the new element of disenchantment with the depersonalized world of technology and a renunciation of the materialism which the profit motive in Western capitalism has tended to encourage.

In conclusion, it should be observed that the vision of a society where the needs of all are met by the sharing of goods held in common has been too persistent to be rejected as incompatible with Christian teaching. On the other hand, because of the moral flaw in human nature, the communistic espousal of communal property can never have more than marginal significance in ordering human society; and this is true even for the church insofar as the church is a social organism. Failure to take into account the doctrine of original sin accounts for much of the romantic and even irrelevant character of religious schemes for the sharing of wealth.

In contemporary usage the word “communism” generally refers, not to the religiously motivated renunciation of private property, but rather to the political policy and program of the party which has controlled the USSR since the days of the Bolshevik revolution in Russia (October 1917) and has since gained the ascendancy in other nations of the world as well, notably mainland China. This manifestation of communism, unlike Christian types, has achieved its ends, not by a voluntary devotion to common ideals of brotherhood (though many of the party members have evidenced a commitment that shames the followers of Christ), but by overthrowing the established order through violent revolution employing military means. Its master theoreticians-Marx, Engels, and Lenin-were avowed atheists, denouncing all religion as the “opiate of the masses.” In Russia, where the Orthodox Church had aligned itself with the tsarist regime, there has been an intense effort by the “militantly godless” to banish religion from the life of the people.

Russian communism has represented itself as the movement of the proletariat, i.e., the wage-earning laboring class, and has openly espoused a world view known as dialectical materialism. By the process of revolutionary change the dialectic of history is to be achieved, and in the place of the antithesis of rich and poor will emerge the synthesis of a classless society. Material reality is the only reality, and the laborer who has been defrauded of his rightful share in material riches is summoned to shake off his chains and join in the struggle to establish the “dictatorship of the Proletariat.” This program has not as yet been realized. Contrariwise, the Communist Party, wherever it has achieved the ascendancy, has spawned dictatorships, depriving the masses of their freedom. It has used its political powers (especially under Stalin) in such a way as to give the state the demonic form of a “total state”—i.e., a state from whose decision there is no recourse or appeal. This tyranny over the minds of men has more than offset the advantages of economic reform which have been introduced. It also explains why the traditional affinity between Christian idealism and communism has changed into a radical antinomy, so much so that today communism and Christianity are regarded by many as the two major world views competing for the allegiance of mankind.

K. Marx and F. Engels, The Communist Manifesto (1848); N. Berdyaev, The Origin of Russian Communism (1937); J.C. Bennett, Christianity and Communism (1949); M. Holloway, Heavens on Earth: Utopian Colonies in America (1951); W. Hordern, Christianity, Communism and History (1954); R. Lowenthal, World Communism: the Disintegration of a Secular Faith (1964).