Socialism as a Rival of Organized Christianity


Modern Protestantism is woefully ignorant of its most formid­able rival. The Catholic Church has been painfully awakened in France, Belgium and Italy. Protestantism awaits its awakening. There is now no country of economic importance without a grow­ing party raising the banner of Marxian Socialism.[1] To under­stand this sweep, it must be steadily remembered that Socialism is not simply a political economy, nor yet even a philosophy of society, nor a scheme of reform. Socialism is a religious faith, and is being embodied in a religious organization. Hence it hap­pens that no calm academic discussion has any more effect on its fortunes than the sneers of Pagan philosophers had upon the activities of fanatic monks in the second century. It is not a science but a dogma; it is not a belief but a profound trust. True it is that it is based upon a political economy far from con­temptible; it also involves a philosophy of life, cruder indeed relatively than its political economy, and it catches up and uses the phrases and conceptions of modern science more thoroughly, if not more intelligently, than does modern Christianity.

It is, moreover, in Socialism that organized Christianity has its most serious and most determined rival. Christian Science, the Salvation Army, Zionism and a hundred other supposed rivals are not really more than temporary phases of religious variation with which Christianity as  organization has always had to contend. In Socialism, a new hope and a new faith have found definite expression. In view of such possible rivalry, it is highly suggestive that the economic world-conditions to-day reproduce, in many ways, those which so greatly farthered the spread of an organized and dogmatic Christianity. Now, as in the days of Rome, the world is physically united, as it has not been since the fall of the Empire. Since then, not until the last century was travel as safe and as frequent as in the days of Roman domination. Now, as then, the world is intellectually under the dominion of a com­mon stock of ideas and methods. What Greece did for the Roman world, experimental science does for us. Now, as then, three tongues give any teacher the ears of the world’s real leaders, and the wide extent of the world’s dominion gives a freedom of utter­ance which the smaller conditions of life made impossible before, and which reminds the student of the really astonishing liberty of speech permitted by Rome. Moreover, now, as in the days of the Empire, the land open to exploitation is rapidly passing into a few hands, and the urban population increases at the expense of the country as it did in the days of Nero, and equally to the alarm of the responsible power-possessing class.

The economic factors that shaped so largely the fortunes of early Christianity have never been fully dwelt upon. But the modern historian is beginning more and more to recognize the fact that the Old Catholic Church rose to power because, under existing economic conditions, it was the only organization with sufficient strength among the proletariat to reorganize the bank­rupt world.[2] Moreover, the whole history of organized Christi­anity is to a great degree dominated by that inherited responsi­bility. It is noteworthy that the strain and tension of that day Hatch finds reproduced in our own. Not, indeed, that Christi­anity was the only organization among the proletariat:

The Roman world was overspread with religious societies. There was no longer any fixed religion, but there were religions in plenty. …. There were none, especially among the lower classes of the people, who did not belong to some union of the kind. . . . The members of the societies were even formed into a sort of general brotherhood.[3]

In fact, the Christian Church fell heir to a mass of proletariat organizations in a manner only comparable to the way in which to-day Socialism is falling heir to trades-unions and reform agencies of even middle-class origin.[4]

Something, however, had happened in the religious world of lower-class Rome. As Sohm says: “their heaven had been emptied of its gods.” Just that has happened in the home of Marxian Socialism. In Germany, the narrow dogmatism of a formal and middle-class State Church has left the working-man to his fate. And into the breach Socialism has rushed. The day in which the Socialist lecture-hall is taking the place of the church begins to alarm even the dull leaders of a decaying orthodoxy.[5] Says Mr. Austin Lewis, one of the most thoughtful and sane Socialist writers:

In Berlin to-day, five out of six people who are to be seen on the streets going to some meeting or other, are going, not to church, but to hear addresses from the platforms of the Social Democrats upon the rights and duties of the working classes. When their children have acquired the habit of substituting the lecture-hall for the church, the latter will no longer confront a careless proletariat with no religion, but a sturdy proletariat with a very definite, if materialistic, substitute for a religion, with an organization, with speakers who are at least as able as the theological colleges can produce, and without any doubt as to their working-class sympathies.[6]

What has gone so far in Berlin is going on all over the con­tinent of Europe, and is beginning rapidly to take place in the United States. Indeed, the student of church history who wonders feebly over his books what was the power exercised by the early wandering prophet and the ecstatic dreamer of dreams, would do well to visit a Socialist meeting, stirred to enthusiasm by a visit­ing “ comrade ” whose reputation as a speaker has preceded him. The burden of testimony at such a meeting is a more or less in­telligent repetition of the catch-phrases of Marxianism; and, with that as a basis, ringing and confident assurances of a world con-quest; and faces worn with toil light up with the radiance of as­sured victory and final world-peace.

Here begin some of the strange and striking analogies that should make every student of primitive Christianity an earnest student of Socialism. For the dogmatisms and the dreams of the two organizations, in spite, of course, of serious and many differ­ences, deserve the most careful psychological comparison and analysis.

What gives Socialism an incalculable advantage over all trades- unionism and independent societies is its tremendous organizing faith in a final world-conquest. Going out of the close and often sordid air of trades-union squabbles into the atmosphere of Social­ist idealism, even the calm and hostile critic must feel the force of this faith in the great unseen dream of an ultimate and complete victory. This uplifting vision was what marked the message of early Christianity, as over against even the most effect­ive and most democratic of the other religious unions. These offered, indeed, temporary refuges, promising to every member some warmth and shelter while he lived and a decent burial when he died. The Christian guild was profitable both for this life and the life to come, and stirred men’s blood by the promise that soon, no man could tell how soon, the meek, the oppressed, the poor and the slave would inherit the earth, and would reign triumphant, where they were now suffering seemingly final defeat in life’s battle.

The Socialist hymn-book rings with the joy of just such certain success:

Still brave deeds and kind are needed,
Noble thoughts and feelings fair;
Ye, too, must be strong and suffer,
Ye, too, have to do and dare.
Onward, Brothers, march still onward;
March still onward hand in hand;
Till ye see at last Man’s Kingdom,
Till ye reach the Promised Land.[7]

What are an eight-hour day and a doubtful ten-per-cent, in­crease in wage, compared with a hope like that? The Socialist dream fills out, in the somewhat starved imagination of the proletariat working class, just the place the prophetic dream of a reign of God filled out in the enhungered fantasy of the early Church.

Moreover, this hope, like the hope of primitive Christianity,[8] was in its origin just as catastrophic in its character. Paul ex­pected the triumph to come at any time. This age was to pass away with dramatic judgments, and one of the early struggles was over the modifications of this view occasioned by recurring cycles of disappointed expectation. The primitive view has never been overcome, and to-day, at each requickening of Christian zeal, the old premillenarian type of hope at once reasserts itself. So, also, Karl Marx and all early Socialist prophets hailed already the day of proletariat triumph, and fondly expected in their own time the catastrophic change which economic conditions were automatically to produce. Even now, the old leaders, like Bebel, scoff at the weakness of faith that demands present reform as an earnest of completer triumph, and the constant debate is about the character of the “revolution.” Marx, Engels, Liebknecht, Bebel, Ferri and all the old-line leaders maintained that it was the grossest heresy to try and substitute “evolution,” in the sense of political compromise even of a temporary character, for “revolution,” complete and final.[9] A saner feeling has taken possession of the working Socialism of to-day. Karl Kautsky,[10] in the Socialist International Congress, held in Paris in 1900, carried substantially the following resolution:

In a modern democratic state the conquest of the public powers by the proletariat cannot be the result of a coup de main; it must be the result of a long and painful work of proletariat organization on the economic and political fields, of the physical and moral regeneracy of the laboring class, and of the gradual conquest of municipalities and legislative assemblies.

This has caused ever since heated discussion, and was carried by about twenty-nine affirmative against nine negative voices. It corresponds to the change that took place in the eschatology of the early Church between the dates of the first and second letters to the Thessalonians. Nor will the earlier Socialist teaching die easily. As the Christian Church settled down to a more comfort­able acquiescence in the existing order, men like Tertullian were filled with just the rage and contempt which now stir Bebel when he discusses Vollmar, Bernstein and Jules Faures, and from much the same instinct. For here again a striking analogy between dogmatic Socialism and early Christianity comes to light. Both are redolent of the scents of a class battle. In the canonical Scriptures, apart from the famous “ Sermon on the Mount,”[11] we have only to consult James ii: 1-7. And far down the history of Christian triumph, this note is still sounded, as in Tertullian. Not that the proletarian then, any more than now, lacked edu­cated leaders. Indeed, the account of Ambrose’s work in Milan, or of Tertullian’s in North Africa, show abundant evidence of how fruitful a field for propagandist activity was the educated proletariat. The most astonishing growth of orders of monks pledged to poverty was the emphatic recognition, far down the Middle Ages, of this class character—a survival of the conception that only a poor and obedient man could have his part and lot in proletariat deliverance. And at each quickening of the religious life of the Middle Age Church, there was a strong revival of this conception.

No one can thoughtfully read the Gospel of Luke without see­ing how primitive and strongly entrenched, in the very centre of early Christianity, this possessionless character of the movement was.

Out of this proletarian character, so strongly marked in the early Church, came another peculiarity which also is noteworthy in Marxian Socialism. A possessionless class is not only a rela­tively unstable population, but one in which national feeling is weak. The Christian or Socialist group is bound to become cosmopolitan in sympathy. The group is no longer based on geographical considerations; the organizing conception is a com­mon discontent and a common hope. The proletariat of the days of Jesus, like the proletariat of to-day, felt itself cut off from national ambitions, and class feeling became stronger than all national feeling. The common burden of economic inferiority acted powerfully in detaching the various possessionless classes from the old group lines, and bringing them together in a new solidarity of common interest. This could not happen without a struggle in the days of Jesus. Paul’s principal battle was for just such a new solidarity on the basis of a common faith. He felt, and rightly felt, that the future of Christianity was staked on that issue.

In precisely the same way, the National Socialist Party of Germany, now decently buried, was an attempted protest against the cosmopolitan character of the Social Democracy. It was an utterly vain attempt, and died an ignominious death.

The National Socialist Party failed to take into account an entirely new standard of valuation, produced by the very condi­tions of the proletariat life and hope.

The conditions of the proletariat struggle are reproducing to­day, in another particular, the history of early Christianity. The power-possessing class press sees in the internal struggles of Socialism a sure indication of inherent weakness; and there is scarcely any exaggeration possible of the bitterness of these dis­sensions. Yet it must be remembered that they have never reached the heights and depths of the contests waged by the parties in the early Church. The whole Empire was shaken by the fierce feuds of warring monks, who fought in the streets and poisoned rival superiors, and used all the arts of blandishments, intrigues, bribes and threats to secure the banishment or death of hated rivals. It is intense fanatical faith that makes such quarrels possible, and without that faith Socialism would be no danger to the existing order. Should a political Socialist party in the near future reach power, such contentions would be as se­rious a menace to the stability of society as were the desperate con­flicts between Arian and Orthodox parties in the old Roman world.

If the reality of these analogies (amid, of course, many differ­ences) is recognized, we are in a position to study and understand the important question of the rise and the significance of dogma. The usefulness of a dogma does not depend upon its truthfulness. What is essential is the unity of the fighting organization upon some dogma.[12] The new organizing enthusiasm must not only have expression, but must find an outward unity in that expression. This is the real explanation of the tenacity of dogma. It be­comes the symbol of the fighting organization, the banner of an army.

Christianity as a personal religion may not need dogma; as an organization, really fighting for the reconstruction of society, it has never been able to dispense with dogma.

To-day, Socialism, as an enthusiasm fighting a desperate battle for a reconstruction of society, is doing just what the Old Catholic Church did; it is hardening into a dogmatism, and doing that under our eyes.

It has its trinity of essentials. These are: the Marxian surplus value theory; the doctrine of a class struggle; and the economic interpretation of history. In 1900, a careful ex­amination of some forty Socialist papers, having a total circu­lation of over a million, showed an extraordinary uniformity of statement along all these lines.[13]

The political economy of Karl Marx is too elaborate for the comprehension of the unintelligent; but it is, at least, as well understood as was the fundamental theology of Paul (cf. II. Peter iii; 15-16), and furnishes a basis for the hope of a future society amply provided with the material means of existence. The economic interpretation of history, as a dogma, plays just the part that the doctrine of predestination has nearly always played when the Church was really struggling. To a weak, small and economically inferior group, faith in the great unseen forces of the universe, as working and fighting with them and for them, is an incalculable source of aid and comfort. Hence, in the dark and stormy days of Christianity, a doctrine of pre­destination, not to be sharply distinguished from fatalism, has always played its part.

The same role falls now to an “ economic and material inter­pretation of history.”[14] It was from Roman Stoicism that early Christianity borrowed the form of its teaching, and the German phenomenalism of Feuerbach seems to be the primal source for Socialism.

But the origin is almost immaterial.

The real significance of the dogma is the support it gives to a profound faith in a new-coming order, inevitable in spite of all apparent weaknesses.

And, as in the days of the Old Catholic Church, so to-day, dogma furnishes weapons with which to fight half-hearted oppor­tunists. The struggle began for Christianity with Gnosticism. The marks of the conflict she bears with her yet. Her efficiency as a fighting organization depended upon her escaping the influ­ences of corroding intellectual analysis, just as to – day, the claims of Vollmar and Bernstein for the liberty of “self-ex­amination and criticism” excite the fury of responsible leaders, and are only permitted within the express limits of a dogmatical confession of faith.

The same struggle between a dogmatic faith and political opportunism is going on in Italy and France, as well as in the United States. The real struggle now, as in the fourth century of Christian history, is not for intellectual exact­ness, but for an uncompromising unity as the basis for a fight­ing organization. The main interest of Athanasius was not a correct metaphysics, but a platform on which the Church could stand and struggle for the conquest of the world. The same is the real interest of the leaders of Socialism. If only Bern­stein will act with them now, he can do all the thinking he wants to after the world-conquest and reorganization have been attained.

In both movements, the sweep and scope of this world ambition dominate all minor interests; and both may be seen historically choosing, with unerring instinct, the weapons near­est at hand for their militant purpose. As fighting organi­zations, both restrict themselves deliberately to men who dis­tinctly do their thinking within prescribed lines. This position the Roman Communion still maintains;[15] and in a feeble way heresy trials within Protestantism still remind us in how small a measure Catholicism has been intelligently rejected by Reform bodies.

Exactly the same instinct that made the embryo Old Catholic Church refuse the flattering overtures of an attractive, specula­tive Gnosticism, with its distracting and disintegrating intel­lectual processes, leads fighting Socialism to repel even the ad­vances of the “ Socialism of the Chair/’ if that is to imply the introduction of all ranges of academic doubt. The immediate purpose in hand is the possession of the producing tools of society.

After that purpose shall have been achieved, formulation of a correct philosophy will not be a great difficulty. So think and even preach those who are the responsible leaders of militant Marxian Socialism. Such dogmatism is strength, of course, but it is also profound weakness.

Dogmatism rendered the triumphs of the Old Catholic Church, and the power of Imperial Romanism, vain bulwarks against the rising tide of a sceptic, Pagan renaissance. The world was, in­deed, conquered—not, however, by truth for truth, but by an organization, worthy of much praise, but yet fatally defective for the permanent purpose of establishing even its own ideals, and much less the more splendid dreams of a reign of a Father- God.

The real strength of Socialism is not its dogmas, but its faith in a supersensuous reality, a profound faith in a coming reign of its ideals of righteousness. These ideals are class ideals, often as bare and unattractive to a power-possessing class as was the Christian dream to a hypercritical and sensuous Paganism. But just because Socialism has formulated those proletariat ideals, it has faith in itself and succeeds in arousing unbounded en­thusiasm among its adherents. The paternalistic and essen­tially feudal and aristocratic communion of Rome is rapidly losing touch with the producing classes, so far as she has ever controlled them. Individualistic Protestantism is linking its life and its fortunes more and more with the present power-­possessing and privilege-possessing class. The producing class has begun to find in militant Socialism its religious expression— “a little materialistic” though not much more so than some Jewish dreams of a land flowing with milk and honey, or some Christian hopes bound up with a new Jerusalem with streets of gold.

There are also just such dangers attendant upon this trans­ference of interest as accompanied the rise of Christian dogma­tism.

The struggles of proletarian Christianity seem often to have hardened and even embittered it. The Apocalypse repre­sents, among the canonical writings, some of these tendencies.[16] The class-struggle doctrine of the modern Socialist will, all too easily, become a doctrine of class hate, and a dream of justice be transformed into a vision of judgment upon “the crime of capitalism.”

Thus, in all attempts to understand the rapidly swelling tide of Socialist enthusiasm, it must be steadily remembered with what we are dealing. No intellectual defeat of the political economy of Karl Marx will have any more effect upon Socialism than the philosophic sneers of ancient Rome at the miracle stories of early Christianity. No appeals to national values will affect a cosmopolitanism even more logical and far-reaching than that of the early Church. The spirit of a fighting patriotism has been transferred to a group organized on a different basis. No persecution will do more than quicken the zeal of earnest fol­lowers and harden the dogmatism of the Socialist faith. The silent graves of the so-called Anarchists[17] in Chicago form already a place of sacred pilgrimage. The existing order is not chal­lenged by a theory of political economy, nor by an academic philosophy of life; it has to deal with a religious faith, a new standard of values, a fighting ideal and a militant enthusiasm rapidly hardening into an aggressive dogmatism. The Roman Empire gave way to the Old Catholic Church because it was rot­ten economically. For genuine Christianity this was a grave mis­fortune, however dramatic the victory may seem to have been. Christianity was dogmatized and formalized and organized into a new Paganism. The really vital question before the existing order to-day is: How far is it ready to meet the tremendous strain of changing economic conditions, or how far is it really as rotten as Socialist enthusiasm proclaims it to be ? If the Socialists are right, and to them fall the responsibilities of reorganizing a weary and outgrown civilization, then it is to be devoutly wished that they may become accurate students of the rise of the Old Catholic Church, and that they would more carefully guard them­selves against the dangers that beset it in the hour of its victory. If the existing order is to maintain itself, then it must find some more zeal-inspiring dream than any yet on the horizon of either feudal Romanism or individualistic Protestantism. Perhaps we, too, might do well to learn again the lessons of success and failure written in the pages of the gradual transformation of primitive Christianity into the Old Catholic Church, as securus judicavit orbis terrarum.

Originally published in The North American Review, Vol. 178, No. 571 (Jun., 1904), pp. 915–926.

[1] The Social Democracy of Germany has now over three million votes, and is the largest party in the Empire. In Austria, the voting power is nearly a million. In the United States, it is now probably about a quarter of a million. In France, it is over a million and a half. And the party is strongly entrenched in Norway, Sweden, Denmark, Holland, Italy, and even now in Spain.

[2] See Hatch’s Organization of the Early Christian Churches, 1880, pages 32–36 and 141–151. Consult also opening chapters of Ritschl’s Entstehung der Alt-Katolischen Kirche, 1857.

[3] Rudolph Sohm: Outlines of Church History.

[4] Such as the Nationalist clubs founded by Bellamy.

[5] For abundant evidence at first hand the reader need only consult the Reports of the Christlich-Sociale Partei for the last three years.

[6] The International Socialist Review, February 1, 1903, Vol. III., No. 3.

[7] Havelock Ellis in Socialist Songs, with Tunes.

[8] For best discussion, consult Johannes Weiss’s Die Predigt Jesu vom Reich Gottes 1900.

[9] Compare also James T. van Rensselaer in The International Socialist Review, July 1, 1903.

[10] Karl Kautsky himself believes, however, in a final “Revolution,” and has written an interesting work thereon.

[11] Of course, incorrectly so called. It is a collection of scattered poems and sayings of Jesus, gathered by Matthew, about the Kingdom concep­tion. See the writer’s “ Messages of Jesus,” pages 110–125.

[12] Consult for another view, Harnack’s Dogmengeschichte, Vol. I., pages 17-19.

[13] Compare Chapters X. and XI. of the Socialist Campaign Book for 1900.

[14] Consult Professor Seligman’s careful estimate, in his Economic Interpretation of History.

[15] See the suggestive encyclical of the present Pope.

[16] Compare also II. Thessalonians i: 4–10, a writing probably not Pauline, and after 72 A.D.

[17] As a matter of fact it should be remembered that the men who were hung were really Socialists, Socialists at that time not being distin­guished from Anarchists.

Author: Ruben Alvarado

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