Socialism: A Christian Heresy?
ITS GNOSTIC ROOTS & UNDYING APPEAL
When the Soviet Union collapsed internally during the extraordinary years of 1989 to 1991, it was widely assumed that communism was finished; the full-blown experiment of state socialism as prescribed by Marx and implemented by Lenin and his Bolshevik collaborators had come to an inglorious end. It could no longer be denied that socialism had failed in its promise of greater and more just productivity. Moreover, the oppression, cruelty, and sheer malevolence of its ruling cadres were now fully documented. Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn was right: The gulag archipelago was a natural and inevitable derivative of the system. Surely, we thought, no one with even a cursory knowledge of the 20th century could possibly advocate for socialism in the sense of state control of the entire economy, much less for communism as its purest and most advanced form.
Of course, we had to recognize that Red China had not abandoned its Marxist-Leninist ideology, despite brave (and fatal) demonstrations by Chinese citizens. Also, the regimes in Cuba and North Korea managed to survive, despite the crushing poverty and oppression they engendered. Yet these could perhaps be explained as historical anomalies.
What is far more difficult to understand is the adoption of socialism by formerly democratic states that enjoyed a degree of prosperity thanks to their free-market economies. The most poignant and painful of these is Venezuela, blessed with immense oil reserves and a well-developed private sector that furnished services and encouraged manufacturing. Despite its relative wealth and stability, Venezuelans chose socialism, first in the form of “Bolivarian socialism” as defined by Hugo Chávez, and then in a more extreme form as developed by his designated successor, Nicolás Maduro.
Yes, Latin America has a history of dictatorships, Left and Right, and even the few prosperous and developed countries of the region, such as Argentina, have been prone to political extremes that have badly undermined their once-thriving economies. Yet Venezuela was a country with a high standard of living in close proximity to Cuba (an economic basket case) that chose a system that has always led to a nation’s impoverishment — and often to a police state as well.
Even more shocking is that here in the United States, over just a few years, a certain segment of our population has developed an interest in and attraction to socialism. How could this occur in a country that has lifted great numbers of people out of poverty, has maintained a democratic government for over 200 years, and, since the end of World War II, has been the main bulwark against Marxist/socialist aggression? Yet we find socialism newly respectable and somehow appealing to a whole new generation of Americans, so much so that the Democratic Party — the party of FDR, Truman, and JFK — is now suffused with socialist ideas and policies. How can an economic/political system with such a consistent record of failure be preferred to one based on free enterprise coupled with open democracy?
The answer may lie in a deeper analysis of the appeal of socialism in its historical and ideological antecedents. Dr. Thomas Heinrich Stark, in a remarkable lecture this past July at the Roman Forum Summer Symposium in Gardone Riviera, Italy (reprinted at CatholicWorldReport.com, Sept. 5, 2019), laid out a profound analysis that traces the appeal of socialism back to the gnostic heresies of the first centuries of the Church. These heresies were multiple, often took on local characteristics, and were adaptable to the ideas of charismatic leaders. Yet they all had a common thread: a rejection or severe distortion of the fundamental Christian belief that the material world was created good, but man, though also created good, has marred his own life and brought distress to creation through sin, beginning with Original Sin and continuing through all generations to the present day.
Stark, a professor of philosophical anthropology at the Benedict XVI Institute of Philosophy and Theology in Heiligenkreuz, Austria, draws heavily on the work of Russian philosopher and mathematician Igor Shafarevich, who spelled out his thesis that socialism is one of the universal, fundamental forces effective throughout history in his epic work The Socialist Phenomenon (1977; foreword by Solzhenitsyn). Shafarevich shows through historical evidence that socialism as developed in the 18th, 19th, and 20th centuries does not reveal its true nature or its underlying appeal. As an economic system, socialism is an irrefutable failure. It has failed, Stark explains, “because it followed a false nineteenth-century economic theory…. Marx’s labor-value theory is demonstrably wrong, and the planned economy, due to state intervention in the market, necessarily arrives at the improper distribution of resources.” It is, therefore, “incomprehensible,” Stark says, that socialism is still “appreciated by so many people.” Its enduring popularity, however, is “based on two assumptions: namely, first of all, that socialism intends to base itself on a coherent scientific theory, and, secondly, that the goal of socialism is to realize freedom, justice and prosperity.” Both presuppositions, Stark asserts, are wrong.
According to Shafarevich, it is necessary to distinguish between state socialism, which is as old as the ancient civilizations of Mesopotamia, Egypt, and China, and is characterized by a complete state monopoly of all resources and means of production, including agriculture, and what Shafarevich calls “chiliastic socialism,” or the belief in a coming ideal society, especially one created by revolutionary action. Chiliastic socialism arises only with the advent of Christianity and provides socialism with its ideological justification. It is, by nature, a gnostic movement. Stark summarizes the critical difference between Christianity and gnosticism:
Christianity regards creation as good. All bad and evil has its sole origin in man’s disobedience toward God, and man’s turning away from God. Man cannot redeem himself from the calamitous situation in which he has been since his falling away from God, not even by a collective effort of united humanity as a whole. The Christian concept of humanity is, therefore, not particularly optimistic. The only foundation on which human confidence and hope can be based, is Jesus Christ…. Only the individual can make the conversion and turning to Christ for himself. Nevertheless, this individual conversion also has an impact on family, society and the state and leads to a Christian culture in which everything is placed under the kingdom of Jesus Christ.
Gnosticism, on the other hand, regards man as basically good. Original Sin is denied. Everything bad and evil results only from the circumstances under which man lives. Ultimately, evil results from the fact that the material world…emerged from the creation of an evil demiurge (namely, Yahweh). Good and evil are…equally original principles that were separate in the beginning. They are mixed in the present time and must be separated again in the future. Accomplishing this is man’s task. Man can thus liberate himself from his disastrous situation by means of a collective effort, through which he overcomes everything material on the path of self-abandonment and spiritualization, thus creating an ideal social situation within the world and history.
Thus, gnosticism removed the need to repent of sin and develop virtue. Tracing gnostic beliefs through the Middle Ages, Stark asserts, “Without exception, all medieval heretical movements were gnostic sects.” What unites them throughout the civilized world and through the centuries is a hatred of orthodox Christianity (especially the Catholic Church) and a determination to rid the world of its teachings, especially regarding matters of family and sexual morality. Shafarevich notes:
Every heretical doctrine that emerged in the Middle Ages had, clearly stated or in necessary consequence, a revolutionary character — that is, to the extent that it came to power, it had to bring about a dissolution of the existing state, a political and social upheaval. Any gnostic sect, [such as] the Cathars and Albigensians, who had actually provoked the hard and inexorable legislation of the Middle Ages against heresy, and had to be fought in bloody wars, were the Socialists and Communists of that time. They attacked marriage, family, and property. If they had won, a general overthrow, a sinking back into barbarism and Pagan licentiousness would have been the result.
One common principle of the gnostic/socialist heresies of the Middle Ages was historical determinism. Thus, the ultimate goal to which history points is not divine judgment of the world but the judgment of the elect over their adversaries — and their annihilation. The corollary is that it is permissible to do things that, from the Christian perspective, are regarded as crimes. Stark explains:
Wherever the heretics gained victory, they implemented their sociopolitical objectives. These objectives are, above all, the abolition of family, property, central moral norms (especially those concerning the Sixth Commandment) and the dissolution of the state order…. The consequences were the murder of priests and religious, the looting and burning of monasteries, the desecration of churches, the burning of crosses, paintings and other devotional objects. The rebellion of the heretics was directed against the Christian religion and subsequently against the hierarchical order embodied by the Christian culture of the Middle Ages.
As the Middle Ages ended, the socialist myth merged with positivism and Hegel’s philosophy of history. By the early 20th century, it mutated into cultural Marxism. This is the powerful movement underlying most of the cultural degradation the West has been experiencing for the past century. One of the foremost advocates of this movement was Antonio Gramsci, an Italian philosopher and Communist Party leader. He recognized that in the prosperous West, the masses would never lead a successful revolution. What was needed instead was domination of the culture, which in time would achieve political hegemony. “Politics is downstream of culture” is Andrew Breitbart’s famous phrase, and cultural Marxists such as Gramsci and the Marxist intellectuals of the Frankfurt School, whose best-known member in the U.S. was Herbert Marcuse, have succeeded perhaps beyond their expectations, considering how deeply the reigning culture has undermined marriage and the family, sexual morality, Christianity (especially the Catholic Church), and loyalty to one’s nation. This, Stark notes, is exactly the intention of cultural Marxists: “The transformation of society into something totally hedonistic.”
Like the heretics of the early Christian centuries, the underlying conviction of cultural Marxists is that the material world is evil, and evil can only be overcome by destruction. This simple departure from the truth of authentic Christianity has the most profound consequences, reverberating down to the present day. If man is marred not by Original Sin but only by unneeded institutions that restrict his freedom, then he can be redeemed by his own efforts, or those of the collective, and the institutions that restrict his freedom (Church, family, community) should be destroyed.
Another Christian truth is that creation is highly differentiated, that though all men have equal dignity as created in the image of God, their gifts and vocations are variously distributed. This leads naturally to hierarchy in all social and political institutions. The denial of this truth in favor of a virtually dogmatic socialist belief in “equality” in the sense of sameness has led socialism to deny individuality and treat all men as interchangeable cogs in a dehumanized economic machine.
Stark ends his lecture with a short analysis of “Tribalism” as the last stage of the development of socialism. He cites the work of Brazilian philosopher Plinio Corrêa de Oliveira, a Catholic who, decades ago, foretold that tribalism would manifest in the 21st century as the final of the four stages of “the revolution” (the first being the Renaissance and Reformation, the second the French Revolution, and the third the communist revolutions). Even earlier, Friedrich Engels, following Rousseau, interpreted the tribal society as a kind of primordial communism in which private property and monogamous marriage were unknown.
Thus, the life of the tribe is completely collectivistic. “According to the ideas of collectivism,” writes Corrêa de Oliveira, “the various ‘I’s’ or individuals merge together, along with their understanding, their will and their feelings, and thus with their own ways of being, and dissolve into the unity of the tribe, which will produce a unified way of thinking and willing as well as a common sense of being…. In the tribe, the cohesion among its members is mainly guaranteed by a common thinking and feeling, from which common habits and a common will arise. The reason of the individual remains limited to little more than nothing, that is, limited to those original, most elementary impulses permitted by their atrophied condition” (Revolution and Counter-Revolution, 1959).
Is it mere coincidence that some leaders of the Catholic Church have embarked on a new appreciation for the tribal societies of the Amazon?
It is clear that what committed Christians are really up against is not the residue of a failed Stalinist version of communism but something much deeper: a resurgence of those heresies about the nature of man, the nature of the world, and the source of evil that caused untold confusion and suffering in the early Church, during the Middle Ages, and through the French Revolution to the staggering human catastrophes of the 20th century. Socialism, in its modern form, rejects the salvation of Jesus Christ and instead insists that man can be “freed” through the destruction of those institutions — Church, family, and community — that have shackled his natural (and “good”) appetites, and that “equality” can be achieved through the abolishment of private property and all the laws and “rights” that enable it (including, in the U.S., our Constitution).
The drive toward chiliastic socialism explains a number of characteristics of modern elites in the media, the university, and politics. It explains why attacks on Christians and their churches are rarely protested, why Islam seems so favored (namely, because the real enemy of socialism is Christianity, and “the enemy of my enemy is my friend”), why marriage and the family are constantly undermined, and why our Constitution is no longer respected, much less cherished.
If we understand the real nature of socialism and its perennial appeal, we can accept that citing evidence of its economic failures will not suffice. Far more than economic “fairness,” what attracts the adherents of socialism today are the ideals of “freedom” and “equality” — not, of course, in the meaning Christianity gives to these concepts, but “freedom” in the sense of the absence of any restraint, moral or otherwise, on one’s desires, and “equality” in the sense that private property (and its accumulation by some) is abolished and everyone is treated as interchangeable in any social or economic enterprise.
Stark does not suggest a remedy for resisting the destructive tendencies of cultural Marxism and socialism. Perhaps the decay is too far gone for electoral victories, and once the socialists gain political power, they may render resistance all but impossible. Yet Christians have a God-given duty to resist all heresies in moral and courageous ways, even to the point of death, if necessary. The overriding goal must be to witness to God, incarnate in Christ Jesus — His beauty, His love, His truth, His goodness — and to let all whom we encounter know that there is simply no inner peace, no lasting joy, and, ultimately, no life except through the salvation offered by Christ. It will be hard, and no doubt there will be martyrs, but it can be done. It has been done before.
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