Thursday, July 1, 2010

Gary Dorrien: Christian Socialism as Tradition and Problem

Commonwealth Economics: Christian Socialism as Tradition and Problem
by Gary Dorrien article link
Tikkun Magazine January/February 2010

For more than a century, Christian theologians have dreamed of a transformed economic order based on democratic empowerment and the common good. A century ago the Social Gospel movement reverberated with calls for economic democracy. In the 1930s, after global capitalism crashed spectacularly, theologians stressed the necessity of finding an alternative to capitalist boom and bust. In the 1970s, the rise of liberation theology resurrected the dream of a transformed economic order.

But the dream failed, and today capitalism prevails in more global and predatory forms than ever. Today the idea of a fundamental alternative seems quaint at best, even though global capitalism has crashed again. The idea of a systemic alternative has lost its coherence in a world of megabyte monies zipping across the planet at the speed of light, de-linked from real production. There is no major movement to replace the predatory impulses of capitalism. There is only the necessity of creating one, recognized by thousands of disparate organizations and communities. For the very problems that gave rise to socialist movements still exist, still matter, and persist among new problems threatening the survival of the planet.

Almost every important theological movement of the past century called for a different future, especially liberal theology, the Social Gospel, Barthian neo-orthodoxy, Catholic social teaching, early Niebuhrian realism, ecumenical social ethics, liberation theology, progressive evangelicalism, and radical orthodoxy. The Social Gospel expounded a vision of decentralized economic democracy or, sometimes, democratic socialism. The Barthian movement was explicitly socialist, though it usually tried to keep theology and politics in different compartments. The papal encyclical Rerum Novarum (1891) introduced the idea of a "solidarist" third way between capitalism and socialism in Catholic social teaching, which was expounded explicitly in Quadragesimo Anno (1941). For decades the ecumenical movement kept alive the Social Gospel hope of a social democratic transformation of capitalism, until liberation theology helped to push the World Council of Churches further to the left on political economy. Liberation theology advocated a revolutionary Marxist or, sometimes, democratic socialist vision of liberation from structures of oppression and dependency. More recently the "Radical Orthodoxy" group associated with John Milbank has combined socialist politics with classical high-church theology. Twentieth-century theologians and social ethicists repeatedly dreamed of an economy based on human need and the common good.

In every case, the social mission of Christianity had something to do with replacing capitalist selfishness and inequality with something better. Virtually all of the Progressive-Era Social Gospelers spoke an optimistic language of progress and social evolution, even if they were radical socialists. The more radical Gospelers couched their views in third-way terms that kept their politics from sounding scary. Reform-oriented progressives such as Washington Gladden, Francis G. Peabody, Shailer Mathews, and Catholic ethicist John A. Ryan favored a third way between capitalism and socialism, advocating cooperatives and guilds, while radicals such as Walter Rauschenbusch and Harry F. Ward struggled to make Christian socialism not seem dangerous.

The Great Depression yielded a sterner kind of Christian radicalism that spurned third ways, speaking a binary language of revolution versus barbarism. There was no third way between state socialism and reaction; for Reinhold Niebuhr and his followers, economic democracy was serious only if it stood for a revolutionary state control of the economy. In the name of realism and relevance, the Niebuhrians of the 1930s and other radical socialists propounded a host of bad ideas, rejecting markets and production for profit, claiming that state planners could replicate the pricing decisions of markets, and equating socialization with nationalization.

On these issues Rauschenbusch ended up looking better than the radicals that panned him for being too idealistic. He contended that democratic worker control was the heart of the matter and that markets cannot be abolished in a free society. He had a strong concept of personal and collective evil, coupled with an overcoming message of social salvation. On the other hand, even Rauschenbusch recycled the totalizing rhetoric of state socialism, embraced the Marxist theory of surplus value, claimed that prices under socialism would be based entirely on services rendered, and trusted too much in the overcoming tide of social idealism.

To the major theologians of the Progressive Era and the Great Depression generation, the capitalist devotion to individual self-interest was plainly hostile to Christian teaching. Some who were far from being Marxists were unsparing about the predatory immorality of capitalism. Christian Socialists usually acknowledged, like Marx, that capitalism marked a great leap forward, and that capitalist accumulation and industrialization were necessary preconditions of a desirable social order. To Barthian theologian Emil Brunner, however, capitalism was not a prelude to anything except moral and social catastrophe. In The Divine Imperative, he pronounced that capitalism "is that system in which all that we can see to be the meaning of the economic order from the point of view of faith is being denied: in which, therefore, it is made almost impossible for the individual to realize, in any way through his economic activity, the service of God and his neighbor. This system is contrary to the spirit of service; it is debased and irresponsible; indeed we may go further and say it is irresponsibility developed into a system."

Anglican bishop William Temple pressed similar feelings about capitalism into a theory of guild socialism. In 1941, shortly before he was named Archbishop of Canterbury, Temple called for an excess-profits tax to create worker and community-controlled enterprises. The following year his book Christianity and the Social Order enlisted natural law against the spirit and logic of capitalism. Production naturally exists for consumption, Temple argued, but capitalism reversed the natural order of things by making consumption depend on production, while production depended on finance. Temple's alternative put a higher value on fellowship than profits, calling for withering capital investment, mutual export trade, economic democracy, a socialized monetary system, and the social use of land. He observed: "It is important to remember that the class-war was not first proclaimed as a crusade by Marx and Engels; it was first announced as a fact by Adam Smith. Nothing can securely end it except the acquisition by Labour of a share in the control of industry. Capital gets its dividends; Labour gets its wages; there is no reason why Capital should also get control and Labour have no share in it."

One of the ironies of modern theology is that the American Social Gospelers of the 1930s and 1940s are nearly always treated as naive idealists, because many of them were pacifists, while Niebuhr is treated as the hero of the story. Yet Niebuhr was wrong about the New Deal, and the Social Gospel progressives were right. The Social Gospelers supported the Emergency Banking Act of 1933, which allowed the new Reconstruction Finance Corporation to buy bank equity. Over the next year, the RFC bought more than $1 billion of bank stock, about one-third of the capital invested in U.S. banks. The Social Gospel progressives, speaking through the Federal Council of Churches, called for "subordination of speculation and the profit motive to the creative and cooperative spirit" and "social planning and control of the credit and monetary systems for the common good." They supported mortgage restructuring, social security, public works employment, and selective nationalization, while Niebuhr replied that these were mere Band-Aids to make middle-class moralists feel better, and that the New Deal was a form of quackery.

The Social Gospelers told a story about the necessity of gradually democratizing society; Niebuhr told a more dramatic story, that history would either move forward to socialism or move backward to barbarism. There was no third way. Radical socialism, communism, and fascism were supposedly more realistic than the tame progressivism of the social democratic, Social Gospel, and New Deal movements. But the radical alternatives crashed and burned, and afterward Niebuhr retreated to welfare state reformism and the liberal Democratic mainstream.

Ecumenical social ethics in the 1950s, taking a similar tack as Niebuhr, decidedly trimmed its sails, with notable exceptions such as Walter Muelder and Martin Luther King, Jr. But in the 1960s and 1970s, socialist idealism made a comeback in social ethics and theology through the rise of German political theology, Third World liberation theology, Black theology, and feminism. German theologian Jürgen Moltmann described democratic socialism as the historical form that Christian hope had to take, "given the present poverty of capitalism and its democracies as well as socialism and its dictatorial governments." Peruvian liberationist Gustavo Gutierrez proclaimed that Christian theology needed to speak "of social revolution, not reform; of liberation, not development; of socialism, not modernization of the prevailing system." Argentine liberationist José Míguez Bonino declared that the struggle for socialist transformation "concretely defines my Christian obedience in the world."

African American social critic Cornel West positioned himself to the left of democratic socialism, embracing the neo-Marxist councilism of Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Korsch, while feminist theologian Rosemary Radford Ruether advocated "a democratic socialist society that dismantles sexist and class hierarchies, that restores ownership and management of work to the base communities of workers themselves, who then create networks of economic and political relationships."

Visions of this sort were commonplace in the theologies of the 1970s and 1980s. Many theologians explicitly advocated democratic socialism, notably Harvey Cox, Gregory Baum, Leonardo Boff, Robert McAfee Brown, Beverly W. Harrison, Kenneth Leech, Johannes Metz, Arthur McGovern, Delores Williams, Ronald Preston, Dorothee Soelle, Franklin Gamwell, Phillip Wogaman, Gibson Winter, Daniel Maguire, and Joe Holland. Nearly all of them stressed that good socialism had little or nothing to do with communism. American Social Gospeler Harry Ward and English Anglican dean Hewlett Johnson were cautionary figures in this area, having ruined their reputations by fixating on the star of Soviet Communism. At its best, Christian socialism also held out against state socialist ideology.

For decades the central policy proposal of most Western socialist parties was centralized government ownership of the major means of industrial production. "Socialism" meant top-down government planning, economic nationalization, and what the British Fabians called the rationalization of society-that every act of collectivization furthered the socialist cause of rationalized economic planning. The best versions of Christian socialism replied that exalting state power was not the answer. The Anglican socialism of Temple, Charles Raven, R. H. Tawney, and Charles Gore was rooted in the pre-Marxist Anglican cooperativism of F. D. Maurice, Charles Kingsley, and John Ludlow, just as the American decentralized socialism of W.D.P. Bliss, Justin Wroe Nixon, and Walter Muelder was rooted in the economic democracy of the Social Gospel. Eminent theologian Paul Tillich shared the Christian socialist aversion to state collectivism. Warning against the "bureaucratization of the economy," he took for granted the necessity of market discipline and contended that only the market knew how to get prices right.

The debate that advocates of decentralized economic democracy always wanted was the one between themselves and state socialists; communism was a perversion of anything deserving to be called socialism. But after the Soviet Union imploded, decentralized socialists did not get the debate they wanted. The differences between the various democratic socialisms seemed irrelevant in a world seized by the manic logic of capitalism. Economic globalization pushed aside socialist concerns about equality and humane community. Nations crawling out from decades of Communist rule in the former Soviet bloc did not aspire to democratic versions of anything smacking of socialism, which raised the question whether anything was left of Christian socialism. How much of the vision of a democratized social order could be saved or reconstructed in a political culture in which "socialism" mostly conjured up repulsive images of state authoritarianism? How was it possible to reclaim the social Christian vision of democratized economic power at a time when corporate capitalism was turning the planet into a single economic market?

For some Christian ethicists, the dream of economic democracy was exhausted and refuted. Lutheran neoconservative Robert Benne challenged social ethicists to admit that their tradition had been wrong to support democratic socialism. Neo-liberal realists Max Stackhouse and Dennis McCann agreed, urging that the death of Communism bore unavoidable implications for Christian social ethics. Stackhouse and McCann observed that "the Protestant Social Gospel, early Christian realism, much neo-orthodoxy, many forms of Catholic modernism, the modern ecumenical drive for racial and social inclusiveness, and contemporary liberation theories all held that democracy, human rights, and socialism were the marks of the coming kingdom." But liberal Christianity was wrong about socialism: "The future will not bring what contemporary theology said it would and should." According to Stackhouse and McCann, the verdict of history had come down not only against the Communist mistake, but against even the forms of democratic socialism that militantly opposed communism. Socialism was dead, which marked the end of liberal Christianity's attempt to give it a human face.

For neoconservatives and some Niebuhrian realists, the project that remained for Christian social ethics was to apply the chastening lessons of Niebuhrian realism to the economic order. Neoconservative social critic Michael Novak flatly opposed breaking down concentrations of economic power. Noting that Niebuhr failed to press his political realism into a critique of social democratic economics, Novak declared that neoconservatives like him completed this essential Niebuhrian task by repudiating the progressive Christian tradition of economic democracy: "Niebuhr did not give much attention to economic issues. Precisely in Niebuhr's neglect, I found my own vocation. Surely, I thought, the next generation of Niebuhrians ought to push some of Niebuhr's deeper insights into the one major area he neglected."

Novak's assumption of this neglected task drew him deeply into the political Right, where, in the 1980s, he became a Reagan supporter and a chief mythologist of American capitalism. To apply Niebuhr's realism to the economic realm is to relinquish the progressive Christian dream of democratizing economic power, Novak argued. The values and legitimizing principles of democracy are pertinent only to the political sphere. To face up to modernity is to exclude democratic tests of legitimacy, equality, and accountability from the economic realm. Realism emphasizes wealth creation and allows the market to take care of distribution. It opposes government regulation of the financial sector and assures that wealth creation at the top will eventually trickle down to middle-class and working-class communities. It accepts and celebrates the triumph of corporate capitalism. Neoconservatism became a powerful political movement by taking that option, advocating capitalist ideology, waging culture wars, and espousing a foreign policy of American global domination.

As I argued in two books, Reconstructing the Common Good (1992) and Soul in Society: The Making and Renewal of Social Christianity (1995), however, there was something terribly strange about claiming that the death of Communism somehow discredited the vision of social and economic democracy. Democratic socialists were the original anti-communists. For seventy years nothing was more galling to them than to be lumped with their communist opponents. Consistently, militantly, and through decades of up-and-down political fortunes, social democrats warned that communism was suffocating and ultimately unsustainable.

To them it was incredible to be told, afterward, that the death of Communism somehow marked the end of their relevance. The ravages of unfettered capitalism and imperialism that produced socialist movements in the first place had not diminished with the triumph of a more corporate and globalized capitalism. To call the entire tradition of seeking an economic alternative a mistake was to resign Christian ethics to a status quo politics that preserved the privileges of the wellborn and fortunate. It was to pretend, wrongly, that concentrations of economic power could be ignored without undermining political democracy and without doing harm to the poor and vulnerable. And it was to assume, wrongly, that the planet's ecosystem, a finite reality, could withstand another century of unlimited-growth "modernization," much less the manic logic of post-Cold War capitalist globalization.

William Temple is another figure who, like Rauschenbusch, has emerged looking better with time. A child of privilege and of British sentimental imperialism, both of which left their mark on him, he yet produced some of the most creative Christian socialist thinking of his time. Temple worried that "socialism" was already indelibly associated with Left-authoritarian politics. Communism was a factor in that judgment, as was the centralizing tendency of social democracy. He opposed state socialism while appreciating that for most people, socialism meant economic nationalization. Thus Temple eschewed the language of socialism in making his case for decentralized economic democracy. As he explained in Christianity and the Social Order, he hoped that all Christians would accept his arguments for economic democracy, even though few Christians outside the trade unions and the political left embraced socialism.

Temple took no interest in bolstering a suspect ideology with the prestige of Christian faith. What mattered was for religious people to be involved in the struggle for social justice in their own way. He appropriated guild socialist ideas in discerning and practicing the prophetic meaning of Christianity, but he did not reduce the social ethical meaning of the gospel to his politics. For him, socialist ideology was a barrier to the Christian ethical aim of democratizing social and economic power. Temple promoted economic democracy as a Christian ethical project while eschewing the progressive Christian tendency to sanctify socialist ideology.

The difference is crucial. Progressive Christianity has to stand for social justice, but the ideology of socialism is dubious and unitary. It smacks of one-size-fits-all dogmatism even when modified by democracy, cultural difference, and pluralism. Too much of the liberationist tradition and other radical theologies have done what Temple feared, undercutting the moral influence of progressive Christianity by clinging to socialist ideology. Progressive Christianity today needs to be more pluralistic, contextual, and pragmatic than that, standing for radical democracy and decentralized economic democracy in ways that suit particular social and cultural contexts.

The social vision of economic democracy cannot be imposed or transplanted. It can only take shape over the course of decades, as hard-won social gains and the cultivation of cooperative habits and knowledge build the groundwork for a better society. Such a project does not call for large-scale investments in any particular economic model. It does not rest upon illusions about human nature. It does not envision or require a transformed humanity. Reinhold Niebuhr's epigrammatic justification of democracy suffices for economic democracy: The human capacity for justice makes democracy possible, but the human inclination to injustice makes democracy necessary.

Niebuhr did not deny that the human capacity for fairness is often moved by genuine feelings of compassion and solidarity, but to him it was obvious that all such feelings are mixed in human nature with more selfish motives. The crucial point was that democracy is necessary precisely because virtually everyone is selfish. Because human beings are so easily corrupted by the attainment of power, democracy is necessary as a restraint on greed and the human proclivity to dominate others.

By the time that he elaborated this argument in The Children of Light and the Children of Darkness (1944), Niebuhr was no longer inclined to press it as a case for economic democracy. Having belatedly given up Marxism, Niebuhr gave up on Christian socialism a few years later. In the early 1940s he did not explore the possibilities of a politics that democratized and decentralized economic power. For Niebuhr, there were only three serious possibilities-free market capitalism, socialism, and New Deal capitalism-and socialism meant economic nationalization and state-planned production for use. He supported the Delta Farm Cooperative movement, but there were never enough experiments of this kind for him to take them seriously as prototypes of an alternative politics. Realism compared liberal capitalism with existing historical alternatives, not a fantasized economic democracy.

That remains a plausible verdict. Whether it is the only serious verdict depends largely on the viability of decentralized, social market alternatives that Niebuhr did not seriously consider. To persist in struggling for the democratization of social and economic power is to hold out for a battered, marginalized, increasingly counter-cultural vision of the common good that is deeply rooted in the history of American progressivism and progressive Christianity, and which has chapters yet to be written.

Gary Dorrien is the Reinhold Niebuhr Professor of Social Ethics at Union Theological Seminary and professor of religion at Columbia University. An Episcopal priest and author of thirteen books, he has a long history of involvement in anti-imperialist and racial justice organizations.

This article is forthcoming in Gary Dorrien’s book, Economy, Difference, Empire: Social Ethics for Social Justice (Columbia University Press, 2010).

Source Citation:
Dorrien, Gary. 2010. Commonwealth Economics: Christian Socialism as Tradition and Problem. Tikkun 25(1): 48.

Tikkun Magazine January/February 2010
Tikkun Magazine home page


No comments:

Post a Comment

Mammon or Messiah research contains copyrighted material the use of which has not always been specifically authorized by the copyright owner. We are making such material available to our readers under the provisions of "fair use" in an effort to advance a better understanding of political, economic and social issues. The material on this site is presented without profit for research and educational purposes. If you wish to use copyrighted material for purposes other than "fair use" you must request permission from the copyright owner.