Liberty, equality, fraternity: the promise of the French Revolution intoxicated twenty-one-year-old William Wordsworth. Looking back on that time, he penned a poem that famously evokes his generation’s fervor. “Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive, / But to be young was very heaven!” He and his fellow radicals – “we who were strong in love” – felt sure they could make real change in the here and now: “not in Utopia… but in the very world, which is the world / Of all of us.”
The young poet’s ardor leaps out across the intervening centuries. In The Prelude, the 1805 poem in which these lines appear, the details of the French revolutionary program get scant attention. What matters is the sense of endless possibilities, the excitement of a “we” joining together to shape a new world.
That excitement is in the air again. A leading US presidential candidate espouses socialism, as does Britain’s Leader of the Opposition. Europe’s social democratic parties are hastening to reclaim their class-war roots so as to fend off far-left challengers. Membership in the Democratic Socialists of America has grown from six thousand in 2016 to around sixty thousand in 2019. According to a much-cited 2018 Gallup poll, 51 percent of Americans age eighteen to twenty-nine have a positive view of socialism (just 45 percent say the same of capitalism).
Today’s radicals don’t talk so much of bliss, at least to judge from the earnest pages of left journals like Jacobin and In These Times. Even so, there’s a sense of newly opened possibilities: that now is the moment for the tyranny of concentrated power and wealth to be overcome by a mass movement of solidarity.
Socialism seems to mean different things to different individuals; as in Wordsworth’s day, the details of a particular program don’t appear to be what’s driving the radical wave. Instead, what grips people is the liberating sense of finally having a cause to fight for.
But what exactly is this cause? Socialism’s champions know how to take effective whacks at capitalism, and they get at least one thing right: the fact that we live in a society of immense affluence and desperate poverty is a public sin with which no person of good will can be at peace. Anyone who affirms the Golden Rule – “Do to others as you would have done to you” – is morally bound to strive for the same essentials of life for others that one desires for one’s own family: health care, decent housing, education, a living wage, and security in old age. That millions lack these essentials in the richest civilization the world has ever known should shock the conscience.
But diagnosis is not yet the cure. Socialists grow coy when it comes to the realities of a state takeover of the entire economy. Bhaskar Sunkara’s much-discussed book The Socialist Manifesto, for example, opens with a fun chapter, “A Day in the Life of a Socialist Citizen,” that imagines an America in 2036 where wage labor has been abolished and the means of production are now owned by the government. This light-hearted depiction of a New Jersey pasta-sauce company called Bongiovi and a workers’ revolution led by Bruce Springsteen is a far cry from real-world examples of socialist governance, such as the ongoing crisis in Venezuela. Thus this peek into an alternative future conveys the opposite of what it intends. We’re invited to take it on faith that this time around, a happy conjunction of democracy and good intentions will somehow overcome socialism’s long track record of sliding into dictatorship and repression.
Meanwhile, capitalism’s malcontents on the right are equally hazy about ends and means. Many younger conservatives rightly deplore the ways capitalism is wrecking traditional bonds of solidarity, community, and family. They see capitalism’s liberal elites aggressively sabotaging the values that give the lives of the working poor meaning and dignity: the institution of marriage, the bonds of faith, ideals of womanhood and manhood, loyalty to place, a sense of belonging. First Things magazine recently published a punchy manifesto that declares: “We oppose the soulless society of individual affluence. … We resist a tyrannical liberalism. … We want a country that works for workers.”
This statement’s signatories do have specific suggestions for how to edge toward these goals. Yet the contours of the eventual society that would truly fulfill their aspirations remain frustratingly vague. Proposals that circulate online – three-acres-and-a-cow distributism, Habsburg restoration – sound just as improbable as Marx’s communist utopia.
In their indictments of capitalism, conservatives and socialists share some remarkable common ground, though of course their preferred remedies sharply diverge. Both stand against apologists for the present system such as the author Steven Pinker, who trumpet statistics showing rising per capita income, life expectancy, and personal freedom in order to accuse capitalism’s critics of ingratitude. In response, the critics can point to other, grimmer statistics: in the world’s wealthiest countries, rates of mental illness have jumped, while so-called deaths of despair from suicide and drug overdoses are reaching epidemic levels. Falling birth rates in countries with high standards of living seem to reflect pessimism about humanity’s future. There’s the looming risk of catastrophic climate change caused, in no small part, by capitalism. Is this, they ask, really what a human-friendly economy looks like?
Those eager for a life beyond capitalism must make a crucial decision: whether or not their main hope lies in grasping for the levers of government power. This is not the place for exploring the uses and limits of politics. But Christians especially should keep in mind the downsides inherent in any attempt to secure the common good through state coercion.
Any serious vision of the common good is anchored in moral convictions. Yet state imposition of moral convictions amounts to a state religion. (Martin Hägglund’s call to socialism in his book This Life even calls it a “secular faith.”) Whatever the creed – Robespierre’s Cult of Reason, or Catholic integralism, or a progressive college’s code of student conduct, or sharia law – the moment that it is backed by the sword of the state it will take on the role of Dostoyevsky’s blasphemous Grand Inquisitor, offering cheap happiness in exchange for spiritual freedom.
Christians should fear assuming this role as a threat to their own integrity. Power corrupts religion from within by substituting coercion for free assent; the heavier the coercion exercised, the deeper the self-corruption. As the early church father Tertullian protested, “It is assuredly no part of religion to compel religion.”
To illustrate the two contrasting paths Christians can take, let’s time-travel back to the spiritual roots of my own community, the Bruderhof, in the Radical Reformation of the sixteenth century. At that time, the so-called Magisterial Reformers such as Martin Luther and John Calvin sought to purge the abuses of the medieval church by allying themselves with secular princes, using the power of the state to impose what they believed to be a purified gospel.
By contrast, the Radical Reformers emerged from a grassroots movement for justice among the common people. The peasants formulated their demands in Twelve Articles that are considered modern Europe’s first human rights document. It included pleas to end cruel levels of taxation, tithing, and forced labor, as well as calls for commoners to be allowed to enjoy the bounty of creation, which originally had been given to all humankind: “It is unbrotherly and not in accordance with the word of God that the simple man does not have the right to catch game, fowl, and fish.”
When peasant protests turned violent in 1525, both Luther and Catholic prelates pronounced God’s blessing on the princes’ bloody campaign of repression; an estimated one hundred thousand were killed. In the aftermath of this church-sanctioned mass murder, the Radical Reformation movement was born. Having learned hard lessons about taking up arms, its leaders (mostly) preached nonviolence. Yet their movement embodied the Twelve Articles’ demand for brotherly community, now transformed by a Christian imagination. Because they insisted on voluntary baptism of adults rather than mandatory infant baptism, they were nicknamed Anabaptists (“re-baptizers”). Anabaptism was soon a capital crime throughout the Holy Roman Empire, and some three thousand Anabaptists were executed in the following decades.
Nevertheless, the movement spread. Around 1527, Anabaptists in present-day Czechia started forming communal settlements in which, following the example of the first Christians, members held all things in common. By century’s end, there were about one hundred such settlements, with twenty to thirty thousand inhabitants living in free-willing community. Though nearly wiped out during the Thirty Years’ War, they survived, and later their descendants, known as the Hutterites, immigrated to the United States. My own wife and children are proud descendants of these brave farmers who five centuries ago risked torture and death to live out a voluntary Christian vision of liberty, equality, and fraternity.
This issue of Plough springs from a core Radical Reformation conviction: that there is a common life that overcomes economic exploitation, a life that is both thoroughly practical and independent of the state. This alternative society is possible here and now; anyone can pursue it. What’s more, it is a vision that has existed since Christianity’s beginnings. It’s at the heart of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount and throughout the New Testament, as well as in the writings of the Old Testament prophets. This vision is exemplified by the communal life of the first church in Jerusalem, in which “all who believed were together and had all things in common; they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need” (Acts 2:44–45).
Some long-time Plough readers are no doubt already muttering: here we go again. Yes we do, because the challenges posed by socialists touch on a part of Jesus’ proclamation that mainstream Christianity has gone to almost comical lengths to avoid. Like Jesus’ hard sayings on divorce or nonviolence, his teachings on riches and private property are politely sidelined, explained away as historically specific or as rhetorical exaggerations. Alternatively, these teachings are treated as a special vocation for monastics, mendicants, and missionaries, a heroic feat that the rank-and-file should not attempt. In the place of voluntary poverty and sacrificial generosity are substituted the middle-class virtues of stewardship and philanthropy.
Yet Jesus’ economic teachings are just as integral to the life he taught as any of his other basic commands: love to neighbors and enemies, hatred of hypocrisy, truthfulness, sexual purity, or the works of mercy. These teachings are not free-floating maxims but are all intimately interrelated; the way of life outlined in the Sermon on the Mount is a single whole that at once enables and requires freedom from private possessions. “You cannot serve God and mammon” is a truth that cuts through all spheres of life, as Eberhard Arnold describes in this issue (page 39). The apostles and early church fathers reiterate the same bracing axiom.
This interrelationship cuts both ways: Christianity’s loss of one element – its original economic radicalism – ends up undermining its other claims too. The sanctity of life would be far easier to defend if Christians could point to their own churches as communities that gave generous economic and emotional support to new mothers and to the families of children with disabilities. Marriages would be more likely to endure without divorce if freed from the stress of economic insecurity. “Do not worry about tomorrow” appears to be foolish advice – unless a person has a church community that will step in when she loses her job or suffers a serious illness. Even Jesus’ command of nonviolence becomes more understandable (though no less counterintuitive) if one no longer has to defend one’s private property in order for one’s family to survive. These are just a few examples of the convincing power that Christianity would gain by refusing to compromise with mammon.
Christian cultural leaders, including those who cultivate a radical brand, don’t shy from provocation when it comes to morality, politics, or theology – but they tend to tread gingerly around the dollars and cents of discipleship. Again and again one meets the same bald assertion that a life of economic sharing is marginal, sectarian, literalistic, extremist, and just not do-able.
It’s important to make a distinction that the New Testament doesn’t speak of voluntary poverty and community of goods as rigid ethical demands, as if owning property were a sin in itself such as lust or idolatry. This misunderstanding stems from the legalistic need to reduce discipleship to a list of duties and prohibitions. Far from it: community of goods in the New Testament is simply the practical expression of love when it overflows into economics. Naturally, this can take many different forms. Here’s some first-hand evidence that a life beyond capitalism is not as unattainable as it’s made out to be:
This summer the Bruderhof community celebrates the beginning of its hundredth year of living together in full community of goods. Over its history, our community has had its share of imperfections and follies, just like any group of human beings. But by the grace of God, and with thanks to friends far and near, we’re still here.
The Bruderhof originated in an unusually fertile and febrile moment: Germany immediately after World War I. In 1920 the theologian Eberhard Arnold moved with his family from Berlin to a small village to start an intentional community. Initially, this was a circle of young Christians disillusioned with the church’s complicity in the militarism that led to World War I. With the Sermon on the Mount as their charter, they drew inspiration from the early church and the Anabaptists as well as Francis and Clare of Assisi, the early Quakers, and the religious socialist movement that included Christoph Blumhardt and Karl Barth. The idea of a rural settlement came from Gustav Landauer, a Jewish anarchist visionary who had been assassinated by right-wing thugs the previous year (page 112); Landauer also inspired the kibbutz movement, which was forming around the same time.
A century later, our community remains small in comparison with many churches. Still, it’s home to three thousand people of many nationalities – in two dozen locations on five continents – who live together and share everything. In our case, this sharing takes the form of a lifelong vow of poverty: we each own literally nothing.
My point in mentioning these details is not self-congratulation but simply to establish an empirical fact: it is possible for people to live this way. It’s possible in diverse geographic settings, with significant cultural variety, over five or six generations.
And of course the Bruderhof is just one recent example in the long history of Christian community. “See how they love one another,” the pagans exclaimed about the early church according to Tertullian in AD 197. The love that impressed the pagans wasn’t a matter of tender feelings but of concrete acts of mutual help, as the historian Alan Kreider describes in his book The Patient Ferment of the Early Church. In the words of the third-century Christian lawyer Minucius Felix, “We do not speak great things, we live them.” The Christians formed an alternative society in which the educated and illiterate, slave and free, served each other as brothers and sisters, with none calling anything their own if another had greater need. To use Wordsworth’s phrase, they were the “strong in love.”
Starting with the early church and then the birth of monasticism in the Egyptian desert, this history includes groups as diverse as 1500-year-old Benedictine orders, reformist movements like the Franciscans, the Waldensians of the medieval period, the Beguines and Beghards, the Moravian Brethren, the Jesuit reducciones in Paraguay and Brazil, the Little Gidding community immortalized by T. S. Eliot, the Jesus Family in China, Dorothy Day’s Catholic Worker movement, and Latin America’s comunidades del base. Numerous communities across the denominational spectrum exist today, from the Catholic Focolare communities based in Italy, to the Evangelical Adsideo community in Oregon, to the Anglican Jesus Abbey in South Korea.
This history should serve to remind us of the possibilities of the present. As a new generation asks hard questions about justice, solidarity, and human happiness, we Christians must remember that we have had access to the answers all along. Of all people we should know: another life is possible.
We don’t need a shallow social justice Christianity that lurches from one progressive cause to the next. We can have the real thing: the way of life Jesus taught in the Sermon on the Mount. This life is there for the having. It is bliss to be alive.
All artwork by Elise Palmigiani. elise-palmigiani.pixels.com Used with permission.