A Christian case for Socialism

I am not of the view that there is a “Christian” political position. I think Christians may vote for parties across the political spectrum. There are any number of ways that Christians might work out their theological convictions in the world of politics too. So, I do not think it is any more Christian to be a Socialist than a Libertarian or a Liberal than a Conservative. I think there are legitimate Christian grounds to end up in any of these places.

Sadly, there are those who do not seem to think it is so. There are people who hold to whatever position they hold and then insist it is the only possible position a Bible-believing Christian might hold. It is also quite common to hear people insist that Christian and Socialism are diametrically opposed terms. Naturally, I don’t think it is so (see here for eg).

So, I thought I would briefly sketch out some reasons why Christian Socialism is perfectly congruous. Indeed, many others have believed it to be so. I am not making the case that this form of Socialism is the Christian position. Nor am I arguing that only people truly committed to biblical teaching will land where I do. I am simply making the case that this position is well within the bounds of scripture and entirely reasonable for a Christian to hold if they are so convinced. So, in no particular order, here are some reasons I believe Christian Socialism is biblically legitimate.

Total Depravity

My starting point is that people are sinners. Often, those who would create straw men insist that Socialists have an undue belief in the inherent good of man. As a Christian of a Calvinistic soteriological persuasion, I recognise full well this is not so. Man is not inherently good. Recognising such leads me to conclude that if society – and governments in particular – are to do what is right, we cannot rely on the inherent goodness of people to achieve it.

If it is right as a society to care for the poor or to look after the sick, it strikes me that relying on the inherent goodness of people to achieve these things is flawed in the extreme. If society at large is to care for the poor and needy, the sick and vulnerable, total depravity tells me that we must effectively lead people to do so because their inherent nature will not cause them to do it. Without law to compel these things, society is unlikely to accomplish them themselves.

It is true that capitalism may be able to motivate people through greed to make vast amounts of wealth, it does nothing at all – on that same basis – to encourage anybody to do good. I am always flabbergasted by the claim – advocated by many Christians – that once people make vast amounts of wealth they will necessarily become charitable and start giving it all away and using it for wider good. Both my theology and study of history tell me it simply is not so. Enough is never deemed enough. Businesses and businessmen do not typically become philanthropic (though I recognise noble exceptions exist). More often, they tend to find creative ways of actively avoiding giving away wealth. Whole sectors in the financial industry are dedicated to finding loopholes and ways of reducing tax burdens and loss of profit.

Sin can be systemic

It seems a point that should be beyond controversy for a Christian. As sinners, who will create systems impacted by our sin, some sins will be systemic. That much should be obvious. As I argued at more length here:

One of the reasons I have no problem identifying myself as a Socialist is that I do recognise the reality of systemic injustice. The principle behind Socialism is to organise society based on need. The reason many Christians in the UK, historically, also had no problem with identifying as Socialist – and why it has repeatedly been said that the Labour Party owe more to Methodism than Marx and its founder was a Scottish Presbyterian – is that they recognise injustice exists. If we concede the Biblical reality that sin exists, it is no great leap of logic to recognise that the systems setup by sinful people suffer from the effects of the sins of those who created them. Nor is it therefore unchristian to note those injustices and biases and seek to do something about them, either address the systemic issues or create new systems that don’t suffer those same problems. Of course, we can have a discussion as to whether Socialism is the best, or most effective, way to tackle those sorts of injustices (particularly those economic ones). But that is an altogether different discussion after the fact of the matter has been established.

If sinners will create sinful systems – and of course we will because we are inherently selfish – then it seems right to ask whether we can address the sinful effects of those systems. Nothing will be perfect, of course, but is it right to organise society in such a way that systemic injustices (or unearned privileges) are rectified so that those who are without, and in whose interests those systems do not operate, may gain an interest? British Socialism has always been concerned with turning privileges for some into rights for all. It is specifically concerned about addressing certain systemic economic injustice that the Bible itself seems intent on addressing.

Biblical redistribution

It is evident from Old Testament Israel that God instituted a system of wealth redistribution. At least, a system whereby wealth could not be hoarded over generations with other tribes and families being destitute across generations. Provisions were consistently made for the poor, jubilee years existed for the cancellation of debt and the returning of land to those who had been forced to sell. However you want to cut it, these are acts of wealth redistribution that were part and parcel of the national law implemented by the Lord.

Whilst we may not want, or even be able, to emulate the law of Old Covenant Israel (for reasons both theological and practical), it bears noting the principle here. Namely, redistribution is neither unbiblical nor sinful. Despite the claims of some, even though people bought land and utilised it, scripture is clear – instituted by God himself – that at various points land, good, property and debts had to be cleared and/or returned. It is notable – in the face of some people’s claims to the contrary – that God did not consider himself to be instituting state-sponsored theft when he did this, despite taking such land and property back off those who had rightfully bought it to begin with.

Nor can we argue that taxation, being different to this, does amount to state sponsored theft. As I have argued here and here, Jesus and Paul both uphold the right and legitimacy of secular authorities taxing people. They give no grounds for refusing to pay tax, which is notable given the ways in which the Roman authorities would have utilised those funds. But they are clear that taxation is not sinful nor does it amount to theft. If the principle of redistribution exists in Israel under the Old Covenant, instituted by God himself, and Jesus and the Apostles uphold the legitimacy of secular states taxing their people in the New Testament, it follow that it is perfectly legitimate and reasonable for national government to redistribute wealth through taxation and (potentially) other means as they see fit.

Need over greed

It bears saying that the driving force behind capitalism and socialism is different. Capitalism seeks to motivate through greed. Leaving aside the fact that it works – that is, you can motivate people through greed – we should note the Bible is less than comfortable with such motivation. If we take seriously 1 Timothy 6:10 – the love of money being the root of all kinds of evil – ought we to consider the consequences of centring society around a principle that flies in the face of what scripture would encourage? We may wish to brush this aside if it were a single verse, but scripture is full of warnings against greed (cf. Luke 12:15, Hebrews 13:5, Matthew 6:24, Ecclesiastes 5:10, James 5:1-6, etc).

Socialism, by contrast, has need at its core. As the arch-British Socialist Tony Benn put it, ‘it’s about trying to construct a society round production for need not just for profit, around meeting people’s needs.’ There are, of course, many different forms of socialism. But at its heart, socialism does not say profit is wrong or a problem of itself, merely that profit is not primary. Socialism is about organising production and work to meet need rather than to serve greed. As a fundamental approach, that would seem to be more in line with biblical thinking than greed-driven capitalism.

Concerns at the heart

The Bible is clear that Christians are not islands, individuals whose lives have nothing to do with those around them. The two greatest commands mentioned by Jesus are necessarily communitarian in nature. They ask for an eye toward God and an eye toward neighbour. There is no evidence in such commands of individualism and concern only for me and mine. Socialism, by its very nature, also says – whilst individuals matter – the collective good of the community matters too. This is in line with much of what we read in scripture

Many of the concerns at the heart of Socialism are, indeed, biblical concerns. The Bible is full of comments about the poor. Socialism is very much focused on these questions and seeking to offer a practical answer to how society can care for the poor.

Similarly, the Bible insists on the value of work. Despite straw man arguments from opponents, Socialism is not anti-work. Indeed, Christian Socialists of the past built much of their philosophy around the inherent dignity of work. They have tended to argue against liberal idea such as Universal Basic Income and have, instead, favoured Job Guarantees as the means of providing work and protecting income. As the Trade Unionist Paul Embery, put it: ‘In the end, workers need jobs, opportunity and agency, not promises of pocket money.’ From the pre-war Christian Socialism of George Lansbury right through to modern Socialist thinkers like Jon Cruddas, there has been a strong and lasting argument made for the inherent dignity of work. A concern the Bible itself offers. Socialism – particularly Christian Socialism – is seeking to provide an answer to that need.

Other examples can be found. But in essence, Christian Socialism is seeking to address many of the concerns scripture says we ought to have in community.

Remaining questions

There are, of course, legitimate questions to ask. There are loads of forms of socialism, what has been mentioned here is the broadest of brushstrokes. There will inevitably be better or worse forms (just as there are with other approaches). Similarly, it is not unreasonable to ask whether it even works in practice. I think there is enough evidence in British history to suggest it can and does (and some of the case I make here). But the pragmatic question of whether it works is a valid one that warrants an answer.

There are some unhelpful questions. Dismissing what is being suggested by way of communism does not help, and is attacking a straw man, when nobody is arguing for such. Similarly, insisting Socialism is unbiblical does not help either. As I have argued here, you may not like it or agree with it, but it is no less biblical than any other system. There are good biblical reasons (some I have made here) to like it.

You may not be convinced to become a Socialist based on anything I have written here. That is fair enough. You may not be convinced it is ultimately workable. That is also fine. You may simply think there are better systems out there. Fair enough. As I said at the top, I don’t think there is a single “Christian” political stance. I maintain Christians can exist across the political spectrum.

But I hope we can at least recognise there are Christian grounds for holding to some form of Socialism. British Socialism has always rooted itself in scripture and traces its roots from the Lollard, through the Digger and Leveller movements, the New Model Army and much of what came after as well as Chartism and other such movements. None of them have anything to do with Communism and most pre-date Marx. Most of those involved in these movements were nonconformists rooting their understanding in the scriptures themselves. As was being said in Chelmsford during the Civil War:

The relation of Master and Servant has no ground in the New Testament; in Christ there is neither bond nor free. Ranks such as those of the peerage and gentry are ‘ethnical and heathenish distinctions’. There is no ground in nature or scripture why one man should have £1000 per annum, another not £1. The common people have been kept under blindness and ignorance, and have remained servants and slaves to the nobility and gentry. But God hath now opened their eyes and discovered unto them Christian liberty.

C. Hill, The world turned upside down, penguin 1975, p.17

The product of this, as Tony Benn rightly notes, was that the rank and file of the New Model Army argued that land should be under common ownership. They similarly ‘argued for universal state schools and hospitals to be provided at public expense three centuries before our generation began, so painfully, to construct the Welfare State, the National Health Service and the comprehensive school system’ (Benn, Arguments for Socialism, Jonathan Cape Ltd 1979, p.31).

That sort of argument for common ownership, particularly in a bid to meet need, is not at all unlike what we read the early church doing in Acts 2 and 4. Whilst, as I have noted here and here, these verses are not specifically speaking about Socialism, we often protest too much in the church over these matters. It is notable that when the church is functioning as it ought it displays something closer to a socialist model than a capitalist one. Of course, the situation in Acts 2 and 4 was a work of the Holy Spirit. As such, if we want to see a society functioning in any way like this, we are wedded to either the entirety of society converting and the New Creation coming into existence prior to the return of Christ (which scripture says will not happen) or accepting that we may need to create a system that leads people to act righteously even if it is not voluntary. Socialism simply argues pragmatically for the latter. The law, society or any given system cannot change a man’s heart but if, as Martin Luther King put it, the law can restrain the heartless, it seems reasonable to apply the same logic and suggest the law can also compel the heartless to act righteously too.

You may or may not agree with the theology on display, but we shouldn’t dismiss that a significant number of believers for centuries have believed it, at least in part based on their reading of scripture. For many nonconformists in particular, there is no incompatibility between biblical faith and these views to which British Socialism, informed largely by mass Christian movements, traces its lineage. Similarly, whilst we may disagree with the political leanings of some of our brothers today, but we should not dismiss them with straw men when they see no incompatibility between such political views today and their biblical faith.

You may not be at all convinced by the case. But let us recognise there is, nevertheless, a scriptural case to be made. There is, indeed, a Christian case for Socialism.