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Socialism and Christianity

Norbert Greinacher is an emeritus professor of systematic theology at the University of Tubingen, Germany. His article can help in the struggle against market fundamentalism and the religious right where the law and the gospel are confused and fear replaces trust.
Socialism and Christianity
at the end of the second and the beginning of the third millennium

By Norbert Greinacher

[This 1998 CuS article (Christians and Socialists) is translated from the German on the World Wide Web,  http://www.brsd.de/modules.php?name=News&file=article&sid=67. Norbert Greinacher is an emeritus professor of practical theology at the University of Tubingen.]

1. Historical Perspectives

Christianity was always an important political power factor in its two-thousand year history. Heiner Geissler emphasized this in his recent book "The Unfulfilled Promise. Politics in God's Name" (Das nichtgehaltene Versprechen). While the Christian churches like the other religions could understand themselves as apolitical and transcendent, they were and are actually a political greatness.

Seen as a whole, the Catholic Church in Germany in the 19th century was completely opposed to enlightened liberalism and nascent socialism. The demand for freedom of conscience was dismissed as "madness" in the 1832 encyclical "Mirari vos arbitramur" (Pope Gregory XVI). Socialism was rejected in the 1864 "Syllabus" (Pope Pius IX).

Again and again there were theologians who did their utmost for an approach between Christianity and socialism and confessed to being socialists. Christoph Friedrich Blumhardt (1842-1919, protestant), Heinrich Pesch (1854-1926, catholic), Martin Buber (1878-1965, Jewish), Paul Tillich (1866-1965, protestant), Karl Barth (1886-1968, protestant) and Walter Dirks (1901-1991, catholic) are examples. Karl Barth insisted that a real Christian must be a socialist if he or she takes seriously the nature of Christianity. In 1919 Karl Barth wrote: "If God is who the New Testament calls God, the conversion of all things, the renewal of the whole world, a change of the structure where no stone remains on another, is imperative, not merely changing a few things. Then faith means taking responsibility for this conversion... Then the social democrats are right, not the social reformers. Then the most radical social democrats are not radical enough. The confession to social democracy is only an obvious, inadequate, miserable and provisional advance payment of what a "Christian" owes today.

In 1947 Walter Dirks on the catholic side published an article "Marxism from a Christian Perspective". In this article, Walter Dirks stressed that Karl Marx was the first to argue from the proletarian existence. Marx experienced middle-class thought in its abundance in German idealism, in its last and greatest systematician Hegel. Walter Dirks identified a mysterious nearness between Karl Marx and Christianity. "Karl Marx gained his theme through an act that has a deep affinity with an essential Christian act, an act of identification with the other, the neighbor, an act of divestment or sacrifice. The so-called materialism of Karl Marx - according to Walter Dirks - can be understood as realism. Christ also multiplied bread and wine, not lofty systems of thought.

2. The Theology of Liberation

The theology of liberation that arose at the beginning of the seventies in Latin America can only be understood on the background of the diverse human oppression on this continent. Four dimensions of this oppression can be named: racism, the capitalist economic system, the military dictatorships at that time and North American imperialism.

The theology of liberation should not be identified with any kind of socialism. However a certain nearness to socialism befits liberation theology since a clear criticism of the capitalist economic system is leveled by theologians of liberation and in official statements of the Latin American bishops' conferences of Medellin (1968) and Puebla (1979). One branch of the theology of liberation is the movement "Christians for Socialism" that originated in 1970 in Chile from a group of 80 priests who supported the socialist party in the Chilean election campaign. In April 1971 they formed the Chilean group "Christians for Socialism" that supported the idea of a socialist society. A little later, groups with the same name arose all over the world as in Germany in 1973. In the final document of the first Latin American congress of "Christians for Socialism" from April 23-30, 1972 in Santiago de Chile, we read:

"We commit ourselves to building socialism because socialism is objectively established by historical experience as the only effective possibility for opposing imperialism and ending our dependence."

3. Catholic Social Teaching

Catholic social teaching was never well disposed toward socialism. The encyclical "Rerum novarum" (Pope Leo XIII, 1891) declares: "When socialists strive to transform special possession into common property, the situation of the working classes can only become more unfortunate." On the other hand, the same encyclical speaks clearly about the exploitation of workers. Socialism was never approved in the later social encyclicals in this century. However chapter 12 in the encyclical "Laborem exercens" (Pope John Paul II, 1981) was titled "The Priority of Labor". "This principle (of the priority of labor) directly concerns the production process in which labor always had the first place as an effective cause while capital consisting in the totality of material means of production is a mere instrument or instrumental cause. This principle is an obvious truth resulting from the whole historical experience of people." The unequivocal primacy of people over capital was proclaimed in number 53 of the recent 'encyclical "Centessimus annus" (Pope John Paul II, 1997).

4. Systematic Analysis

The term socialism covers an abundance of ideas and realities from national socialism, religious socialism, democratic socialism, socialism with a human face to Marxist, Leninist, Maoist and Stalinist socialism.

For me, the term socialism includes four elements:

1. The whole history of the human race known to us can be described as the rule of people over people and the rule of social classed over other social classes engendered by very specific economic structures.

This class society exists today in Germany in a more differentiated and sublime form than Karl Marx depicted in his analysis of society at that time. Still socialism turns against every social system that contains, encourages or sanctions the rule of people over people.

In "Phenomenology of the Spirit", Hegel profoundly and idealistically analyzed masters and servants. Masters and servants are the "two opposite forms of consciousness, the independent and the dependent".

Socialism turns against every soci8al system that includes, encourages or sanctions the rule of people over people. In every society, there must be no rule other than rationally justifiable power and exercise of power that is constantly controlled and temporally limited.

2. People may no longer be considered as playthings of inscrutable powers. All people are in principle subjects of history. This results necessarily for socialism from the struggle against the rule of people over people. A fundamental democratization is necessary so all concerned persons can articulate their interests, settle their conflicts and make majority polit8ical decisions in all social areas, not only in the governmental area.

3. Since economic structures play a great role for class oppositions and class conflicts and class oppositions are defined by the question of ownership of the means of production and service enterprises, the abolition of private ownership of the means of production and the service enterprises and democratic co0ntrol over them has to be realized in a democratization of society.

4. The urgently necessary challenge for socialism today of tackling the political and economic structures of dependence on the international plane in the North-South conflict, supporting the emancipatory movements in the Third World and championing more justice in the international political and economic system was already recognized by Karl Marx. This challenge has intensified extraordinarily.

On the background of this understanding of socialism that can only be intimated in rough outlines, I'd like to formulate the following thesis as an answer to the question "Must a Christian be a socialist?":

A high degree of correspondence exists between central declarations of Old Testament and New Testament traditions on one hand and the goals of socialism on the other hand. However the connection between the theory and praxis of the Christian faith on one side and the theory and praxis of socialism on the other side is not a necessary connection.

High degree of correspondence between Christianity and socialism

Firstly, there is a high degree of correspondence between Christianity and socialism.

1. In the Old Testament and intensely in the New Testament, human solidarity, solidarity with the outlawed and victims of the rule of people over people is a decisive leit-motif for social conduct. In the Old Testament, the prophet Amos takes sides for the outlawed and challenged the palaces of the kings. Building on these prophetic traditions, Jesus of Nazareth proclaims that God is on the side of the victims, on the side of the poor, the hungering, the oppressed, the unhappy and outlawed. The satiated and rich who laugh, the socially privileged, are against this partisan God. The first will be last and the last will be first.

2. 2. The prophets recalled the command of equality and social symmetry. They championed the release of slaves and protections in favor of the socially weaker. According to Leviticus 25,10, everyone should receive his property again and return to his tribe in every 49th year. Jesus also urged this behavioral pattern, particularly in the Sermon on the Mount.

3. 3. The genuine Jewish-Christian traditions turn against every kind of rule of people over people. In the Old Testament, religious and state institutions were creations in the context of liberation history, not sacrosanct institutions of salvation. These institutions can be criticized theologically and are historically troublesome. In proclaiming the coming of God's rule, Jesus relativizes all exercise of power in human society and rejects all rule of people over people. The saying in Mark 10,42-44 is important for the church community: "You know that those who are supposed to rule over the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great men exercise authority over them. But it shall not be so among you; but whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be slave of all."

Since the community of Jesus starts from an attempt of rule-free social interaction, it sets standards for the whole society. The fact of the proclamation of God's rule means proclaiming simultaneously the autonomy of people, not the heteronomy of people. The God of Jesus is not a Moloch who can only endure subjects next to him. The God of Jesus intends the autonomy, freedom and greatness of people.

4. The genuine Jewish and Christian traditions have a dynamic view of the course of the history of humanity. The Old Testament traditions begin from the exodus from Egypt and the law at Sinai and live with the hope of a final definitive liberation. The life of the Jewish people is marked by remembrance of this freedom experience and the challenge of realizing this freedom under all future conditions.

Jesus' message of God's reign contains the demand of conversion (Mark 1,15). This conversion leads individuals into their social environment, not into the introspection of private repentance. Getting involved in Jesus' cause provokes criticism and correction of the political structures. The conversion demand requires deviating from what was valid in the past. This involvement violates taboos and allows public conduct that was previously inadmissible.

More correspondences could be shown between Christianity and socialism. I spare myself from showing the correspondence of these biblical elements with the goals of the socialist movement.

In the following I will cite several important arguments for the second part of my thesis that the connection doesn't necessarily exist between the theory and praxis of the Christian faith on one side and the theory and praxis of socialism on the other side despite the high degree of correspondence.

1. People in this century have had such miserable and more or less horrific experiences with different forms of socialism that these experiences should keep us from a rash identification of Christianity and socialism. This argument is important for those who stress the dialectic of theory and praxis and not only pure theory. The counterargument that hardly imaginable acts of inhumanity were committed in the name of Christianity is true but must lead to the conclusion that the central ideas of the Christian faith should not be hastily identified with any kind of institutionalized Christianity or socialism.

2. Christians and socialists living in Europe may not revert to the theoretical and factual achievements of the European traditions, the Enlightenment and the bourgeois and social revolutions of the 18th to the 20th centuries. To use a term from Habermas, the "old European human dignity" may not be abandoned. This forbids dogmatically declaring a certain political movement as the "be-all and end-all" and not recognizing the significance of other humanist movements or denying their right to exist.

3. "The truth is concrete." This statement is correct even if it originates from Lenin. I cannot speak abstractly and theoretically of socialism but must name horse and rider. In other words, I must describe concretely which politically relevant socialism I mean today. I must be engaged in this socialism. This forbids me from identifying a concrete form of socialism with Christianity.

4. Given the "condition humaine", given the incredible ambivalence of human life, given the historical experiences of people and given the experience of my own conditionality and limitation, a person may not totally identify with a person, group of persons, religious or political movement or institution. This is particularly true for the Christian because he knows himself under the eschatological reserve. The Christian lives, thinks and acts in the knowledge that a definitive perfection of his own existence and the life of his fellow-creatures is still in the future and cannot be accomplished by him alone. This knowledge should lead the Christian on one side to passionate engagement for a more human world and on the other side give him a composure since everything does not depend on him alone.

5. When one starts from the conviction that every Christian must be a socialist and when one assumes that Christian existence in principle is not conceivable without the church, one actually makes the church into a sect and abandons its essential public nature. The church is not only an affair of men and women, Greeks or non-Greeks, poor or rich or even socialists or non-socialists.

6. Christian faith is not a totalitarian ideology or authoritarian dogmatism. Deriving a final concrete political program from the Christian faith is forbidden because the Christian faith isn't totalitarian but invitation, motivation, stimulation and inspiration. The suspicion that those claiming the necessary connection of Christianity and socialism transfer the doctrine of the one and only Church - a doctrine that should be rejected - to the one and only socialism would charge socialism with an authoritarian, totalitarian, religiously motivated ideology. That would be disastrous.

7. Whoever - like myself - understands the church "as a public witness and bearer of the dangerous freedom remembrance in the `systems' of our emancipatory society" and whoever comprehends theology as political theology in the sense of a critical-emancipatory reflection of Jesus' cause with political relevance in our social situation cannot identify the church and theology with a certain political movement or party because the church and theology would lose their critical potential.

8. In the center of Jesus' message is the proclamation of God's rule, a reality realized partially in this world in and through Jesus whose perfection in the future will be accomplished by a reality surpassing all human powers and ideas. According to the statements of the Communist Manifesto, an association where the free development of every individual is the condition for the free development of everyone replaces the old middle-class society with its classes and class oppositions. Both realities are not contradictory. However a qualitative leap exists between the two that would be disastrous to ignore for both realities.


I'd like to conclude with a personal remark. I grew up in an upper middle-class, very catholic milieu until the end of my study time. In a protracted, complex learning process full of conflict, I became convinced that Christianity and socialism do not contradict one another but can learn from each other. A socialist policy is necessary to solve present social problems. I decided for democratic socialism because democratic socialism offers the best possibility for carrying out political reforms in a socialist perspective. Therefore I became a member of the SPD (Socialist party in Germany) in 1975. I don't have the courage to tell all other Christians to act as I act..

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No thanks. 23.Feb.2004 07:30


Just because Walter Dirks thought Karl Marx had a "mysterious nearness" to christianity doesn't make it so. Dirks was a self-rightous asshole. Marx was for the formation of a secular state. I find it interesting that the Chilean "christians for Socialism" commit themselves to opposing imperialism and ending their dependence while affiliating themselves with the christian imperialists. What's next a Facists Against Facism group? If it wasn't for christian imperialists we wouldn't have the modern, western ruling class. "There is a high degree between christianity and socialism"? What about Muslim, Buddist, Rastafarian, Islamic, Pagan, etc.? You don't think that Muhammed was for the people also? Either way, organized religion should have no part in a Socialist state. I think Stalin would agree. I find it a little sad that you don't feel comfortable enough in either your religion or your political ideology to "come out" to all your progressive, socialistic-type christians. What was that famous saying by Marx on the subject...something to do with opiates and masses...

Christian communism 23.Feb.2004 11:31

Nopey Duke

Remember Jesus said that the first shall be last and the last shall be first in the Kingdom of Heaven. So, how can classism be compatible with Christianity? It can't. Capital "C" Communism (aka, "godless Communism" or "Stalinism") has given communism a bad name. My dictionary defines "communism" as "a social system characterized by the absence of classes and by common ownership of the means of production and subsistence." So, IMHO, Christian communism is a more appropriate term to describe what has generally been known as "Christian socialism." We may as well be taken for goats as for sheep: Jesus knows how to shepherd either one.

BTW: Joel Kovel, in "The Enemy of Nature" discusses the Bruderhof as an example of ecologically sound socialist practice in the U.S. today, calling it "Christian communism." There is, of course, the Christian socialist movement (continuing on from R. H. Tawney, et alia, from the early 20th Century) still alive and active in Great Britain. However, it has been recently tarnished by the fact that the most prominent member of that movement is Prime Minister Tony Blair. "Not perfect [by a long shot], just forgiven [he hopes]."

marx was for freedom of religion... 23.Feb.2004 11:43


...but he was also very much for the separation between church and state. Of course, he also believed that womens' place was one of servitude to men. He was ahead of his time in some respects, and a product of his time in other respects.

Another socialist who was a christian; Albert Einstein.
WHY SOCIALISM? By Albert Einstein, Ideas and Opinions From Monthly Review, New York, May 1949

Marx only wished to see religious organizations diminished to the point where they exercised no power to influence society at the behest of the ruling class, a true separation of church and state. As far as the right of a person to worship as one pleases Marx stated that:

"These rights include freedom of conscience, the right to practice one's chosen religion. The privilege of faith is expressly recognized, either as a right of man or as a consequence of one of the rights of man-the right of freedom".
-- Karl Marx, On The Jewish Question

"The incompatibility between religion and the rights of man is so little part of the concept of the rights of man that the right to be religious in the fashion that pleases one and to practice a particular form of worship is explicitly included among the rights of man. The privilege of faith is a universal human right."
-- Karl Marx, On The Jewish Question

FYI... 23.Feb.2004 14:23


Actually Albert Einstein was a pantheist-leaning Jew. He was definitely not a Christian.

"The most beautiful thing we can experience is the mysterious. It is the source of all true art and science. He to whom this emotion is a stranger, who can no longer wonder and stand wrapt in awe, is as good as dead: his eyes are closed... To know that what is inpenetrable to us really exists, manifesting itself as the highest wisdom and the most radiant beauty which our dull facilities can comprehend only in the most primitive forms - this knowledge, this feeling, is at the center of true religiousness. In this sense, and in this sense only, I belong to the ranks of deeply religious men."

- A. E. "What I Believe"

my bad 23.Feb.2004 17:13


Thanks, co-traveller.

Although from the quote you used, it seems that Einstein was not much a follower of organized religion. Seems he IS a smart guy, after all.

Blah, blah, blah 23.Feb.2004 17:58


Doesn't anyone know how to read? ALL, ALL, money goes into a communal fund, no matter what economic system of the government the fellowship lives in. ALL property is property of it's members, and to reach out from there to others in the community who are most vulnerable and in need.(ACTs) Jesus tells his disciples that the world has it's system (gov't) of prestige, privalege and power, but with his church their is no hierarchy.(GOSPELS) What is the economics of Christianity? Why don't you read and find out instead of comparing it to organizations, catholic, protestant, Marx's version of communism ect. blah, blah, ect. that curupt it's true meaning. The Bible consistently warns about how the word of God will be twisted, especially by those claiming to represent His Word.

Ahhhhh the mushroom cloud... 23.Feb.2004 18:11

Einstein the genius

As you see, my work and dream is beautiful. Actually my god is death, Amen. I hope my pretty words didn't confuse you.

Read? 23.Feb.2004 18:52


I didn't read anyone trying to pull the bible wool over our eyes and claiming to be the WORD OF gOD. Ever try reading things besides the bible? It's fun, but challenging. Good luck!

You tell em' Wendy 24.Feb.2004 22:05

Big Brother

I love oxymorons like, "christian imperialism". I also agree that organized relegion has no place in a Socialist state, unless it is manipulated by the state. The spirit is dangerous. But one more thing, please don't encourage people to read. p.s. Love the way you Hate Dirks.