November 17, 2021

You think communism is a modern invention? Consider this: “At the very first, when he returned to the country from overseas, he had ordered that no one in the society should possess anything of his own, that everything should be held in common and distributed to each according to his needs.” This is not about Bernie Sanders’s return from his 1988 trip to the Soviet Union, nor even Lenin’s return to Russia from exile, several decades earlier. It’s certainly not about Marx or Engels. The eminently communist exhortation to hold everything “in common”, and to distribute wealth “according to his needs” is a quote from the most influential Father of the Church, Saint Augustine, who died in the year 430.

But even in Augustine’s time, the idea was old. He was following in the footsteps of the early Christians, who, we learn in the Acts of the Apostles, “owned all things communally”, and “sold their properties and possessions, and distributed to everyone, according as anyone had need.” David Bentley Hart (whose translation of The New Testament I use here) cannot but conclude that “the early Christians were communists”.

Except, of course, that they were not — not in our shallow sense of the word. For Christianity was so much more than a political revolution; it caused a tectonic shift in the mind. Like any major religion worth its salt, Christianity involved taming the power-hungry, self-assertive, greedy animals that humans, by their nature, are. Yet it went one step further and offered the highest prize to those at nature’s losing end: the meek, the wounded, the vulnerable, the unfortunate. And since so much in the human world revolves around material wealth, the religion’s founders struck at its source: our acquisitive instincts.

You really want to be perfect? Jesus Christ recommends a life of utter destitution: “Go sell your possessions and give to the poor, and you shall have a treasury in the heavens, and come follow me.” The result was a religion so “radical”, as Hart calls it, that it was impossible to put into practice in the real world. There was only one Christian, Nietzsche quipped, and he died on the cross. To be a true Christian must be unbearable.

But Christianity didn’t have to be put into practice to have an impact on the world — trying was enough. By trying hard to be Christians (even without ever succeeding), people in the West and elsewhere have, in time, brought forth a major anthropological revolution: a new way of seeing the world and humanity, a new ethical vocabulary, an enhanced and expanded individual subjectivity. And there was something remarkably dynamic about this new subjectivity — one never content with itself, never at ease, always on the move, always having to navigate a perilous inner landscape: temptation, sin, guilt, dread of eternal damnation, remorse, repentance, state of grace.

Not that Christians were much better beings than others. They could be just as bloody as the heathens, if not worse. But they were always thinking about what a better humanity would be like. And in the process, they were taught to seriously distrust “this world,” and to stay away from its “traps”. Above all, they were sensitised against material wealth.

So, when the Industrial Revolution (which was all about material wealth and how to multiply it) came to pass, many Christians recognised it for what it was, and found themselves equipped to deal with it. Capitalism was a wonderful thing, they thought, except that it went against what the Gospels had taught, by fundamentally favouring the wealthy and the strong, the self-assertive and the unscrupulous, at the expense of the poor and the weak and the humble. And to oppress the latter was to hurt Christ personally: “inasmuch as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me.”

That’s why, from John Ruskin and Leo Tolstoy all the way to Pope Francis, from that brand of British Labourism that was dubbed “more Methodist than Marxist” to the Social Gospel in the US, from Italy’s cattocomunismo to “liberation theology” in Latin America, there has always been a serious concern, among reflecting Christians, about the damage that the incessant pursuit of material wealth can do to the soul. The wealthier we become, the poorer our spiritual health.

All this is not — or should not have been — surprising. What is more surprising, perhaps, was that even overtly atheist rejections of capitalism — of the “religion-is-the-opiate-of-the-people” variety — were similarly informed by a vigorous Judeo-Christian social vision. For here, too, the rejection of capitalism was done on behalf of its victims: the poor and the powerless, “the least of these my brothers.” For all their anti-religious rhetoric, Marx and Engels’s works make for excellent theological reading. The radical solution they proposed — overthrowing the wealthy and the powerful, enthroning the poor and the downtrodden in their place — is not very different, in its spirit, from the one we find in Christianity, where, you may recall, God has “chosen the destitute within the cosmos,” and offered them his Kingdom.

By the 19th century, then, the ethics, social vision, and philosophical vocabulary of Christianity were simply inescapable for anyone in the business of thinking. No matter what theories one hatched, however secular or un-Christian, one had to employ Christian categories, assumptions, and patterns of thought. Even to attack Christianity itself, one had to resort to Christian language, as Tom Holland has explained in these pages. That fact, of course, can be seen as a great victory for Christianity, if one achieved on the cusp of death.

Communism as an actual political system may have been a failure of historic proportions, but that does not mean that the idea has lost its appeal. Not only do today’s enthusiasts seem to ignore everything about the first attempt’s abject failure in the Soviet Union and elsewhere; they are also, for the most part, blissfully ignorant of the distinctly Christian sound of much of what they say. Elite schools seem particularly good at teaching this kind of ignorance. Secular or even noisily atheistic academics recycle a social vision that has been at the core of the Christian message for some two millennia: a commitment to the victims of any forms of injustice and oppression, to the poor, the weak, and the humiliated — “the least of these.” Their ethical language, too, is radically Christian, centered as it is on guilt and an irrepressible need for repentance, remorse, and reparation.

“Privilege” is the new name of the original sin of old: you are born with it, no matter what you do or say or think, you will always remain “privileged,” and will pass your condition on to others. The much derided woke apology seems just another reiteration of the Christian confession: admit that you have sinned in thought, word and deed, say that you are unworthy and show contrition, promise that you will change your ways, and you will be forgiven. If the zealots had it their way, the implementation of this parodic Christianity, centred obsessively as it is on purity, guilt and repentance, accompanied by an incessant hunt for reprobates, and an orgy of punishment and exclusion, would make Calvin’s fundamentalist Geneva look like a pretty lowkey operation.

But perhaps I’m being naïve. What if this is just another trick the elites use to preserve the status quo, maintain their privileges, and get rid of their potential competitors? People in power have always done that, no matter what religion, ideology and political philosophy they have employed in the process. It’s no accident that this woke brand of radicalism flourishes especially in the Ivy League environment, where students have the means and the leisure to play professional revolutionary. Those at community colleges are too busy just trying to stay afloat.

The space within which the elites now operate has, after decades of intense globalisation, become more crowded than ever. Since the more people get in, the more competitive it gets, to move ahead one needs to get inventive. By adopting such a radical rhetoric and instantiating themselves as the exclusive representatives of the underprivileged — or even their most trusted spokespersons — these trust-fund revolutionaries hope to get a competitive advantage on the political market. “I am already representing the downtrodden, all of them, and brilliantly. There is no role for you to play, so step aside. Holier and way more revolutionary than thou.”

However, in so doing, they resort to an ideology steeped in Christian values and language — rather than, say, to social Darwinism, which would be a far more accurate representation of what they are doing, and would come more naturally to them. They may despise Christianity with a passion, but they cannot do without it. And that’s another Christian victory, if a posthumous one.

C

For, as far as Christianity itself is concerned, this is not life but a form of death. For something to exist socially, it needs to be named by its name. Indeed, this is no ordinary death, but a degrading, humiliating, highly embarrassing one. Here Christianity is used and abused and then casually discarded. But, then again, this is only too fitting, because that’s precisely what makes it such a Christian death; Christianity’s founder died the most humiliating death imaginable in the ancient world, so bad it was reserved only for slaves and social pariahs.

To complicate things even further, at the other extreme of the political spectrum, Christianity is in no better shape. True, on the far Right it is acknowledged and proclaimed, ever more loudly and more perfunctorily. Christ’s name is everywhere: used shamelessly by politicians as a rhetorical device, political slogan, and dirty trick. Here Christ is emptied of any meaning, glued to the car’s bumper, and left there to rot. That’s another way Christianity is dying — and quite another story.

Over the last two millennia, Christianity has died countless deaths like this. Which is perhaps only appropriate for a religion predicated on death — one that has chosen a cruel execution method as its symbol. In the end, it must be death that has given it such a tremendous vitality. For “unless the grain of wheat falling to the ground dies, it remains alone; but if it die it bears plenteous fruit.” Christianity’s victory lies always in defeat.