Monday, August 24, 2009

Why Are So Many Theologians Socialists?

It is startling to realize how few contemporary academic theologians reject the collectivism of the varying types of socialism and how many accept the Marxist critique of capitalism and liberalism as beyond debate. Why are so many theologians socialists? I ask this question because there are several prima facie reasons why theology and socialism might be perceived as being at odds.

First, there is the fact that most socialist regimes during the past century have been anti-religious, sometimes violently so. Persecution of the Church in China and the Soviet Union is only the most obvious example. Even less totalitarian socialist governments, like the one currently in power in Spain, lose no opportunity to demonstrate their fervent hope that religion will wither away as quickly as possible.

Second, socialism appears to put a great deal of faith in the government to achieve social justice, a faith that seems naively over-optimistic at first blush. In a supposedly "post-modern" era when the optimistic faith in reason displayed by Enlightenment theorists is widely derided, it seems odd that the doctrines of the perfectibility of man and the possiblity of a government ruled by reason (which surely are necessary for the implementation of socialism) are so readily accepted and importance ofthe division of powers and limited government so easily dismissed.

Thirdly, the Marxist forms of socialism (and almost all forms trace major aspects of their theory back to Marx) is a species of atheistic materialism, which is about as opposed to Christian theism as it is possible to be. Great debates have occurred over whether Marxist critique is valid minus its materialistic presuppositions, but surely that is a point in need of defence and cannot simply be assumed.

These are just the three most obvious impediments that occur to me off the top of my head to any Christian embrace of socialism. Nevertheless, to attend, say the American Academy of Religion, and to let it be known that one is not a socialist is to attract bemusement, or vitriol or in extreme cases denunciation and exclusion. Why is that?

F. A. Hayek, in his classic The Road to Serfdom, distinguishes between two aspects of the meaning of socialism. On the one hand, "It may mean, and is often used to describe, merely the ideals of social justice, greater equality, and security, which are the main aims of socialism." So people often proclaim themselves socialism as a kind of shorthand for being in favor of social justice." (p. 83) So to call oneself a "socialist" may just mean one is in favor of social justice goals.

Hayek continues: "But it means also, the particular method by which most socialists hope to attain these ends and which many competent people regard as the only methods by which they can be fully and quickly attained. In this sense socialism means the abolition of private enterprise, of private ownership of the means of production, and the creation of a system of 'planned economy' in which the entrepreneur working for profit is replaced by a central planning body." (p. 83) This is a description of the means by which the ends are to be achieved.

I think that when most theologians claim to be socialists (or critical of liberalism or capitalism) they mean that they are socialists in the sense of embracing the goals of social justice. To be honest, I don't think most give much thought to the means by which those goals are to be achieved.

To the extent they do give it any thought, however, they likely think that rather benign, certainly democratic, means can be used. They probably do not seen themselves as supporting extreme measures like nationalization or abolishing all private businesses. In fact, many are now coming round to the idea that it is better to leave most profit-making business alone so that they can generate the necessary funds to be re-distributed by means of a progressive tax system. So some sort of democratic welfare state probably fills their imaginations and tends to elbow aside images of totalitarianism and communism.

Democratic socialism is seen as a nice compromise between a liberal democratic state dominated by neoconservatism, on the one hand, and a Stalinist dictatorship, on the other. Marx, you see, was wrong about the need for bloody revolution; democratic socialism can come by means of social evolution.

The question I would raise, however, is whether this democratic socialism toward which we supposedly are evolving is anything other than a form of statism and collectivism in which one by one our freedoms will gradually disappear? It may be a more benign form of conquest, but conquest it must be from an individual or minority standpoint.

Are the goals of social justice really achievable apart from a tough-minded use of less palatable means? If the goal of social justice is to satisfy human desires, is there sufficient consideration being given to the fact that human desires are insatiable and so will never stop expanding? Can there actually be, therefore, a stopping point between democratic socialism and a full-blooded collectivist state in which central economic planning and totalitarian control of the government set the limits of what can be expected by the population? Is democratic socialism really a separate economic system and sustainable over time? Or is it a half-way house and inherently unstable? Finally, is it really safe, given the fallen reality of human nature, to risk losing natural justice, limited government, the division of powers, private property, vigorous civil society and free enterprise in the pursuit of utopian vision of social justice? And have theologians really given sufficient thought to these questions?

1 comment:

David said...

To be honest your latest blog highlights again for me a comment I left on Halden's blog the other day about John Piper, which is the tendency of (north) American Christians to conflate Christianity with politics. I say this - to reiterate my point - not to mean that English Christians are free of the taint of politics, but to say that in America the theological is so much more obviously the political to a degree that seems implausible in the UK. This is not necessarily a bad thing, as of course the political should be informed by the theological, but it looks from this side of the Atlantic as though a person's political persuasion is determined by their theological allegiance in a way that must look natural, but which isn't. The socialism you highlight is exactly my point: why would theologians be attracted to socialism over and above an alternative? More importantly, to my mind, which is having the most influence, theology or socialism? At a guess, and at the risk of appearing cynical, I would say that socialism is attractive to theologians because of the fear of being so engrossed in theology that the practical matters such as concern for the poor are left by the wayside. In this regard socialist tendencies stand in as a substitute for genuine concern for one's immediate neighbour. I honestly don't think that God is interested in our individual political agenda's, socialist or otherwise, because what he is interested in is how we treat those we come into contact with daily, because love is an embodied virtue. Concern for the less well off, for the oppressed overseas, for the chronic victim (take your pick!) is all very well, but 1 Corinthians 13 shows that all this without genuine, embodied love is nothing but a gassy fart.
I must add though that I live in a country that has universal healthcare, for which I am very grateful because I could not afford hospital bills without it.