Christians and Socialism: a response to Owen Strachan

I was sent Owen Strachan’s latest City of God podcast on public theology. The topic concerned Socialism. Given my stated position on that, it was suggested that I might be interested in giving it a listen.

Before I go on, I have commented on this issue half a dozen times now. You can read comments here, here, here, here, here and here. It is also interesting to notice how almost all of these comments come from America. With the notable exception of the article by John Stevens – which it should be noted was itself based on comments by the American theologian Wayne Grudem – every comment on why Christians should not endorse or subscribe to Socialism comes from the US.

The Evangelical church in the UK is much less party political, and far less fractured down political lines than our American brethren, so there tends to be fewer grenades thrown across political bunkers. There is Evangelical representation in all the mainline UK parties and across the majority of minor parties too. That is not to say the UK Evangelical church doesn’t have its blindspots, but they are less likely to find their expression in party politics. Moreover, there is a cultural factor to consider too. As I commented here, much of what Americans would label Socialist is considered mainstream and moderate in much of Western Europe. There are certainly cultural factors at play when it comes to political discussion of this sort with our cousins on the other side of the Atlantic.

But let’s dig into some of the points made by Dr Strachan. It was interesting that he began the podcast by noting a key difference between Communism and Socialism; namely, the approach to wages and goods. There are some other key difference Dr Strachan doesn’t highlight. Indeed, he goes on to offer a highly biased definition of Socialism that states ‘there is no incentive to earn more. There is little motivation to succeed beyond mere sustainance.’ We will come onto that point shortly. At this stage, it is important simply to note that he does distinguish Socialism and Communism from the outset but then spends the rest of the podcast conflating the two things. This is something of a mistake.

He goes on to argue that no Socialist system has ever worked. He argues that it has a chequered, negative history. The problem, of course, is that he makes this argument in relation only to Communist nations. Having distinguished (albeit only loosely) Socialism from Communism, it doesn’t seem credible to then denounce Socialism based on failed Communist regimes that most Socialists openly reject. This isn’t some sort of modern revisionist position, George Orwell – a self-styled Democratic Socialist who documented his views in his book The Road to Wigan Pier and Down and Out in London and Paris – also wrote Animal Farm as a direct critique of Russian Soviet Communism. You can’t distinguish Socialism and Communism, only to conflate them so that you can reject Socialism by pointing to failed Communist states that even Socialists themselves denounce. That is a false conflation.

Dr Strachan is clear enough that this issue matters at all because there are political representatives in the US who describe themselves as Socialist (incidentally, just as there are individuals and even whole parties describing themselves that way in the UK). It is perfectly legitimate to ask whether such representatives are a credible voting option for Christian people. But to conflate Communism and Socialism throughout, and to refer to Communist states as a means of rejecting the Socialist views of those particular representatives, isn’t likely to achieve that goal. Does anybody really believe that the economic and social policies of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Bernie Sanders are equivalent to Maoist China or Leninist Russia? Both of those people have been abundantly clear that they are not Communists and are seeking to enact policies similar to that of Britain, Norway or Sweden. Even our most Socialist party leaders of the past cannot credibly be viewed as akin to Fidel Castro or Joseph Stalin.

Dr Strachan argues that Socialism has been shown to be economically disadvantageous. However, the Socialist governments that have been in power in Britain have maintained our position consistently as the world’s fourth or fifth largest economy (depending on the particular era). The French, with their history of Socialist governments, sit at number 6. China, which is evidently Communist, has the world’s second largest economy. During the 1980s, Russia had the second largest economy in the world and, even today (though no longer Communist), remains in the top 10. Whatever else we may want to say, the economic effects don’t seem as obvious as some wish to claim. The social ‘deleterious effects’ of Socialism to which Dr Strachan points, however, are only ever evidenced under Communism. There are no non-Communist examples he offers.

As he goes on to look at scripture, Dr Strachan cites 1 Tim 5:18 ‘Do not muzzle an ox while it is treading out the grain,” and, “The worker is worthy of his wages”.’ But he has already noted that Socialism does grant people wages and they are free to do with them what they wish. He is quite right that scripture suggests a worker is worthy of the wages he or she earns. But he has already stated at the top of the podcast that Socialism does not undercut that principle.

He goes on to argue that in collectivist systems the worker doesn’t enjoy the fruit of his labour. But this is simply untrue. All systems introduce taxes of one sort of another. Scripture is very clear that taxes are entirely legitimate and ought to be paid by the believer. As I make clear here, taxes are not sinful and neither Jesus nor Paul thinks so.

Most Socialist systems redistribute wealth through a system of progressive taxation. That is, for example, the first £10,000 of earning is untaxed, earnings between £10-20,000 are taxed at 10%, earning between £20,000-40,000 are taxed at 20%, earnings between £40-60,000 at 30% and so on until a top rate tax rate is reached. This achieves three things at once. It takes the lowest earners out of tax altogether and it only taxes additional earning above the base point. Second, it taxes people proportionately according to their earnings. Third, it allows people to earn more money and – though taxed at a higher rate on their higher earnings – even at a 60 or 70% rate of tax, they still receive more money for more work. It is simply untrue to say that Socialist tax systems do not allow people to earn money or to enjoy the fruit of their Labour.

Tellingly, Dr Strachan argues that such taxes are ‘plucked from you’ and ‘given to the workers of the party.’ Again, this is simply untrue. It may be the case under certain Communist regimes, but it is evidently not the Socialism advocated by the majority of Democratic Socialists (and certainly not the form of Socialism advocated by the American representatives claiming the label). Tax money is used for public services. It is redistributed to the poor primarily in the form of publicly owned services, run at a highly subsidised rate, so as to give access to the poor to healthcare, public transport, education and any number of other vital services.

Conversely, Dr Strachan argues that the ‘free market properly understood does not incentivise greed.’ But that is to speak against the fact. Indeed, the free market is driven by profits and bottom lines. Companies exist for the purposes of making money. Argument against a system of progressive taxation is always made in terms of allowing people to keep their own money or, more pointedly, allowing people to make more and more money and retain it.

As I point out here, free market advocates want to argue on the one hand that people should be allowed to keep their own money and make as much of it as they wish. On the other hand, they argue that this doesn’t incentivise greed. They further argue for a trickle down economic system whereby the rich get richer and the poor, by proxy, benefit from their riches. Historically, however, the biggest gap between rich and poor has almost always been evident most clearly under free market capitalist systems. As I have noted before, ‘Examples of companies and individuals using tax loopholes and avoidance schemes serve only to underline the point. The rich – who become so by being told their greed is good – merely take that view to its logical conclusion and do all they can to keep their amassed wealth and do very little for the poor.’

The biggest problem for Christian free market advocates is that they fail to take account of Total Depravity. Greed – which the Bible does not endorse – exists in the hearts of sinful people. As I commented previously:

Despite man being inherently selfish and sinful, [there is an assumption] those individuals who generate wealth will be philanthropic and generous. They motivate individuals through greed – recognising that sinful human nature can be harnessed this way – but with a ludicrous sleight of hand simultaneously argue these same sinful people will suddenly become generous and philanthropic despite having been motivated to amass their wealth through greed and monetary motivation. It makes no sense and doesn’t speak to the reality of a world in which the very rich do all they can to maintain and hoard their wealth.

As such, I went on to argue:

Because the human heart is sinful we cannot rely on the generosity of rich and wealthy individuals. It is precisely because I believe in the doctrine of total depravity that I cannot see how a low tax system, that relies on philanthropy and trickle-down economics, can possibly work for the good of all. Rather, it makes more sense to recognise that people are inherently sinful. That sinful nature does not suddenly disappear upon the generation of vast amounts of wealth. Therefore, to have a system that imposes redistribution on wealthy individuals seems a far more sensible approach. This allows people to amass wealth whilst simultaneously recognising they are unlikely to share their money for the benefit others.

It is interesting that Dr Strachan so quickly rubbishes the idea of the ‘trustworthy figure called the nation state.’ Now, let’s be realistic for a minute, we all recognise states go wrong and don’t always do what is good. Good systems of any sort will have checks and balances on the exercise of power. But Dr Strachan makes this assertion – implying that the nation state is not to be trusted at all – without any reference to Paul’s comments about governance. Romans 13:1-7 has much to say about governing authorities and Paul – despite living under less than Biblically sound leadership – nonetheless says governments are instituted by God and are not a terror to good conduct. Paul overtly tells us to pay our taxes to them and to honour and respect them. Paul seems to be of the view that paying is legitimate and the state have been instituted by God and thus are to be honoured and respected. The inference appears to be much more trusting than Dr Strachan appears to give credit.

I want to echo Dr Strachan’s emphasis on Biblical doctrine as the grounding for all that we believe. I also echo his view that we want to encourage people to think beyond doctrine about how to apply our doctrinal views to other areas of life and learning. We want to see people form a strong Christian worldview and to think rightly about it from a Biblical theological and doctrinal grid. We want people to think about things more fully and to read about these things. On all this we agree.

But in his desire to help people think through these matters I think he offers straw men that work against that goal. He continually caricatures Socialism as seeking some sort of ‘Utopia’ when few argue for it on these grounds. He advocates free market capitalism (which is, indeed, a view that can be justified on scriptural grounds) whilst refusing to acknowledge there are scriptural grounds for alternate views. Dr Strachan advocates looking through history but fails to acknowledge the Christian Socialist movement. He fails to consider the Christian history of the Labour Party – founded by a Presbyterian Scottish lay preacher – and propped up by Welsh Methodism. These men and women were no less Christian and no less driven by a desire to see their understanding of the Bible worked through their politics than we are.

There are, indeed, Biblical principles that we can apply to the realm of politics and society. But we must be careful about tying any one system to the Biblical view. Godly Christian people will draw Biblical conclusions about politics and exist across the political spectrum for a variety of reasons. We may emphasise certain views as more important than others, we may see one system as (broadly) achieving more than another. But I fear when we begin to say that godly Christian people who come to different conclusion on their politics to us are not legitimately interpreting scripture, we are being driven less by Biblical fidelity and more by the very cultural reasoning that we want to encourage our people to eschew.