Thursday, March 5, 2015

Christians for Socialism

"Socialism” is a word with a very negative connotation for most Americans. And yet perhaps socialism, especially democratic socialism, deserves to be much more highly evaluated by the public at large and by Christians in particular.
Last month I read with great interest two books about past socialist leaders in the U.S. One was Irving Stone’s Adversary in the House (1947), a biographical novel based on the life of Eugene V. Debs and his wife Kate. Debs (1855-1926) was a pioneer union leader and five times the Socialist Party of America candidate for President of the United States.
While reading that captivating book, I remarked to June, “I hope Debs was as good a man as Stone thought he was.” Needless to say, I was highly impressed by him—and by his thoughts and actions. 
The other impressive book was The Other American: The Life of Michael Harrington (2000), a superlative biographical work by historian Maurice Isserman. Harrington (1928-1989) was the last great socialist leader in the U.S. 
Harrington was also the author of The Other America (1962), a very significant book that helped influence President Johnson to initiate the “war on poverty” in 1964.
Debs was not particularly religious, although he was friends with and a benefactor of a minister in his hometown of Terre Haute, Indiana. And although he became an agnostic, Harrington grew up as a devout Catholic and as a young man worked for two years with Dorothy Day and the Catholic Worker movement.
Isserman writes how at a party in celebration of Harrington’s 60th birthday, Ted Kennedy declared,
In our lifetime, it is Mike Harrington who has come the closest to fulfilling the vision of America that my brother Robert Kennedy had, when he said, “Some men see things as they are and say ‘Why?’ But I dream things that never were and say ‘Why Not?’” . . . Some call it socialism; I call it the Sermon on the Mount (p. 359).
The other most prominent 20th century socialist leader in the U.S was Norman Thomas, a six-time presidential candidate for the Socialist Party of America. Thomas (1894-1968) was also a Presbyterian minister for twenty years. 
So while socialism in America was not a Christian movement as such, it was closely tied to people shaped by a Christian worldview. Looking more broadly, though, some of the most prominent 20th century Christian theologians and/or activists were advocates of socialism.
Among those who quickly come to mind are Karl Barth in Switzerland (and Germany), Paul Tillich in Germany (and the U.S. after 1933), Kagawa Toyohiko in Japan, and Reinhold Niebuhr in the U.S. In addition, in the 1970s and ’80s there was a “Christians for Socialism” movement in Latin America.
Kagawa, who as a young man began to live in solidarity with the poor in the slums of Kobe, stated his position quite clearly: “I am a socialist because I am a Christian.”
There are many different types of socialism, and it perhaps goes without saying that most Christians who have espoused socialism have been staunch opponents of the violent or coercive type of socialism. 
Barth and Tillich were strong opponents of Hitler’s National Socialism. And most American socialists have been strongly opposed to oppressive socialism such as that seen in Stalinism or Maoism.
Most Christian socialists are best designated as democratic socialists, and the socialist activities of Debs, Thomas, and Harrington have morphed into what is now known as the Democratic Socialists of America.
Perhaps it is again time, especially for Christians, to take socialism more seriously and evaluate it more highly.


  1. Thank you, Leroy, for this provocative posting. I raise here the name of Martin Luther King, Jr., and I call your attention to an article by an author whom you much admire, Obery Hendricks: Also, Cornell West writes in his 2015 book about MLK _The Radical King_ (Beacon), "The radical King was a democratic socialist who sided with poor and working people in the class struggle taking place in capitalist societies" (xiii). See

    1. Thanks, Michael, for reading this morning's article and for posting your comments.

      You are right, I much admire Obery Hendricks, but I had not seen his excellent article about MLK. And I did not know about the new book about "The Radical King." Thanks much for providing the link to information about it also.

  2. Thank you, Leroy, for this courageous statement in a culture that has stigmatized any such talk as so outside reality that Americans cannot even think clearly about it or evaluate the evidence of it. I met Michael Harrington on more than one occasion, and I was at the founding meetings of the Democratic Socialist Organizing Committee, the forerunner of the Democratic Socialists of America. He was an unusually brilliant man whose academic background was more in literature than politics. I would also recommend, by the way, his book titled, Socialism. It's a thoroughgoing examination and manifestation of socialist thought.

    When the Soviet Union collapsed, I had hoped that we in America, without the external threat of communist thought (typically viewed by Americans as socialist because of Western capitalist propaganda) would be able to move on with greater progress towards a more just and humane state--that we could debate in a context of cooperation and vision without fear of some great external threat. I knew that the right wing, financed by rich capitalists, would continue to try to reduce us all to the pawns of laissez-faire capitalism, but I must confess I didn't realize how successful they would be at turning their propaganda machine away from the communist target and towards liberalism. Thus, we're a socially and politically stalemated country today without any serious external threat to our way of life anymore. I underestimated the level of cruelty and duplicity America's right would and has exercised toward its own people. It's very, very sad.

    1. Thanks for your (as always) helpful comments. I was impressed that you had met Michael Harrington "on more than one occasion" and that you were at the founding meeting of the Democratic Socialist Organizing Committee. I read about the DSOC's beginnings in 1973 in Isserman's book.

      According to Isserman, in a brochure advertising the DSOC's first convention, in the fall of '73, Harrington wrote, "We identify with the tradition of Eugene Victor Debs and Norman Thomas--with a socialism which is democratic, humanistic, and antiwar." That is the type of socialism that sounds good to me.

      I also thought it was quite interesting that Harrington told that first convention, "We must go where the people are, which is the liberal wing of the Democratic party." To the extent they have done that, perhaps President Obama's critics are not wrong when they accuse him of being a socialist.

  3. Local Thinking Friend David Nelson (and I just had breakfast with him, Anton, and other friend yesterday) sent the following comments:

    "Thanks for your articulate words about Socialism. I embrace socialism because I take seriously (although not literally) the Bible.

    "We need more voices who share this vision of a a truly human agenda that grows from compassion and true justice. We can live without uncontrolled capitalism that only further denies too many the basics of living."

    1. Thanks, David, for your brief, but significant, comments.

  4. Thinking Friend Glenn Hinson, who wrote "Love at the Heart of Things: A Biography of Douglas V. Steere (1998), shares this comment:

    "I’m with you, Leroy. Douglas Steere belonged to the Socialist party and voted for Norman Thomas. Douglas was a deeply devout Quaker."

    1. Thanks, Dr. Hinson, for sharing this about Douglas Steere. I did not know that he belonged to the Socialist Party, but I am not surprised that he did.

  5. Perhaps many of your readers (all right, I mean me) would appreciate a follow-up blog from you sometime that describes what a socialist system might look like here in America. My initial reaction to this blog was, "Yes, this would be better than our current system, which is selfish and is not meeting the needs of the poor." But then I began wondering about potential dangers of sacrificing freedoms and fairness. Would people who work the hardest or take risks for a new idea in business lose much of the potential for reward? Would innovation suffer, as it has under some socialist governments (East Germany vs. West Germany, N vs. S Korea, etc.). Given our history and given our nature, might any such social revolution merely reverse the social order of oppression (e.g., the aftermath of the French Revolution or the Bolshevik Revolution)? I imagine we can find better examples among current socialist systems in Europe.

    1. Thanks, Fred, for your thought-provoking comments and the raising of hard questions.

      I have been thinking that perhaps a follow-up article might have to be, "Why Socialism Won't Work in the U.S." At least, I don't see any hope for a significant Socialist political party--although we do have one democratic socialist Senator, Bernie Sanders. But in this regard, I suggest you read the response to Anton's comments that I posted a few minutes ago.

      I don't see any danger that democratic social would sacrifice any political freedom or fairness. It might "sacrifice" the freedom of corporations (capitalists) to run roughshod over workers.

      Certainly the history of socialist governments has not been good--but the examples you gave were not of democratic socialism. As an example of the latter, Willy Brandt was "the leader of the Social Democratic Party of Germany (SPD) from 1964 to 1987 and chancellor of the Federal Republic of Germany from 1969 to 1974. He was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1971 for his efforts to strengthen cooperation in western Europe through the EEC and to achieve reconciliation between West Germany and the countries of Eastern Europe" (Wikipedia).

    2. I certainly feel warm toward Harrington's concept of "a socialism which is democratic, humanistic, and antiwar," as you mentioned to Anton. Politics is not my strong suit and I feel out of my league in this discussion, but I'd like to learn more about any solutions to corporations running roughshod over workers — and over other blocks of society, which is the current state of things. But I'm still concerned about disincentivizing individual entrepreneurs. I just need to understand more about how democratic socialism works in practice. And yes, obviously, the examples I gave were not of democratic socialism. I'm probably a victim of the right-wing propaganda machine to which Anton refers!

      I suppose that Christianity transcends all political parties and that a conscientious Christian could conceivably work for the good within just about any political party (and probably has) . But some parties seem closer than others to the concerns of Jesus for being peacemakers, showing mercy, caring for the sick and the poor, and camaraderie with those outside our "in-group." Democratic socialism might well come closer than any others.

  6. One of the most enlightening books I remember reading is "At Home in the Universe" by Stuart Kauffman (1996). He was looking at order, chaos, and how they impact complex systems. He found a similar pattern from microbes to government, "life exists at the edge of chaos." Life needs enough order to remember, and enough chaos to change and learn. He even used governments to illustrate this, contrasting the excessive order of the Soviet Union with the excessive chaos of a typical modern Italian government. If he were writing it today, perhaps he would give the fickle finger of chaos award to the House of Representatives in Washington. John Boehner, you know who you are!

    Kauffman points to the three states of matter to illustrate this point. Steam has too much chaos for life to thrive, and ice has too much organization. Liquid water is the home of life. I believe economics works the same way. The famous Budweiser horses are neither the wild stallions of libertarian economic fantasies, nor the dead horses of communist over-regulation. They are tamed, yet proud and productive. So should all capitalism be. Meanwhile, they were originally free to pull a wagon down the street because government ended prohibition, and built a road. Perhaps an even better metaphor is fire. Wild fire is a necessary part of wilderness, but is a terrible threat to civilization, hence our conflicted responses to forest fires. On the other hand, the cold ashes of communism have little use. In between is the first great achievement of the hominid line, the taming of fire. (Remains of million-year-old campfires predate Homo sapiens.) Tame fire smelts steel, powers vehicles, cooks food and heats and entertains us in our fireplaces. It is so useful that this has become a problem, and we are looking for ways to replace some of the fire with less environmentally damaging energy sources. Taming capitalism means lots of regulation and a fair amount of socialism. That's right, some functions are simply too complex or dangerous to be attempted in the market at all, and should be done directly by government. Running prisons is an example that comes to mind. Public prisons are bad enough, but the horror stories coming out of the private prison industry underscore the problem of allowing the effective ownership of one person by another. It is just slavery disguised as something else.

    Markets tend to work where transparency is high and coercion is low. Our TVs keep getting bigger and better, and cheaper. Although, even here, government leans on the scales to be sure things like energy efficiency and safety are considered. Healthcare, where transparency is low and coercion is high, has resulted in such a malfunctioning market that American has by far the most expensive healthcare in the world, and only mediocre outcomes. New York City Mayor Bloomberg gained some attention recently by arguing that part of our healthcare problem lies in lack of proper regulation in our food system. If anyone wants to drink to that, please refrain from the 64 ounce soda!

    Jesus taught us, "It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God." (Matthew 19:24) Meanwhile, Paul (OK, probably not Paul) pointed out, "The love of money is the root of all evil." (1 Timothy 6:10) My take from this is that anyone who is out to get rich is marching up the wrong trail. There is nothing wrong with making money along the way, and certainly nothing wrong with earning enough to live, but when earning money become the only goal, and especially when it morphs into a power-hungry obsession, then we see the connection between what Jesus and Paul said above. The financial meltdown of 2008 was fueled by such obsession, and facilitated by an unconscionable failure of regulation. As Edmund Burke famously put it, "The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing."

    1. Wow, Craig, what an impressive posting!

      I had not heard of Stuart Kauffman before, but he seems to be an superlative thinker and writer. I found his comparison of steam, ice, and liquid water to be very interesting as well as your use of that for analyzing economic systems.

      With that analogy, I would see both "ethical capitalism" as Charles Shields mentions below and democratic socialism to both be "liquid water," with the former being closer to "ice" and the latter being closer to "steam."

  7. Thinking Friend George, who is a pastor in Canada, shares these comments (selected and edited from a longer email message):

    "In Canada, we have three major political parties in Canada: Conservative Party of Canada (somewhat akin to the Republicans), Liberal Party (somewhat akin to the Democrats), and the New Democratic Party (which is the socialist party).

    "The NDP, formerly known as the CCF, was born in the thirties. It fought for the rights of the 'little guy' -- people in the labour force. It gave birth to what we now call MEDICARE in Canada. All citizens of Canada are covered by MEDICARE which has been a big "plus" for the vast majority of the Canadian populace. The NDP is also the party that continues to seek social justice in our country and abroad.

    Some provinces (states) have had NDP as the governing party. Currently, Manitoba has NDP government.

    "The CPC is the governing party federally and it has not been popular with a vast majority of people in Canada. It allies itself to the large corporations and does not have a conscience when it comes to justice issues. The CPC is very arrogant and does not listen to its people. It is closely allied to the monied people and corporations.

    "Although I am not a member of the NDP, I do like many of its aims, goals and objectives and in past years, I have voted for the candidate who has a social conscience and is able to stand up in government and 'fight' for what is right and just.

    "There is definitely a place for democratic socialism in our society."

    1. Thanks, George, for your helpful comments from north of the border (for us who are USAmericans).

      From all the good things you said about the NDP and your description of it as having candidates who have a social conscience and who are able to stand up in government and 'fight' for what is right and just, I wonder why you are not a member of the NDP. It sounds to me that that would be a good party for a Christian (and a pastor) to be a member of.

  8. Local Thinking Friend Eric Dollard makes these comments:

    "Thanks, Leroy, for your fine comments.

    "I had not before heard of Kagawa Toyohiko, but after a bit of research, it is clear that he was a remarkable man. Not only a socialist, he was also a pacifist--in Japan of all places.

    "Many Americans equate socialism with communism, and while communism is one form of socialism, there are other versions, in particular, democratic socialism.

    "I suppose that I am a socialist in the sense that I believe everyone should have enough food to eat, a safe place to live, a good education, access to quality healthcare, and a job with a living wage.

    "I do not begrudge the wealthy their wealth, but their wealth should be secondary to fulfilling the basic needs of life for everyone.

    "The New Testament seems to support this basic idea."

    1. Eric, thanks for your comments -- and for taking time to do some research about Kagawa, whom I consider one of the most outstanding Japanese Christians of all time.

      I like what you said about being a socialist "in the sense that I believe everyone should have enough food to eat, a safe place to live, a good education, access to quality healthcare, and a job with a living wage." I can't understand why that is not the desire of all Christians--as well as of those who are humanists.

  9. Thinking Friend John Tim Carr, an old boyhood friend who is a fairly conservative Christian who lives in Orange County, California, writes,

    "I do not disagree with you about Socialism!

    "Our Bible teaches us that we should think of others better than ourselves and this is a lot closer to Socialism than what we have now.

    "I am for what is taught in the Bible in James 1:22&27."

  10. Thinking Friend Charles Shields, a Baptist pastor whom I knew as in Louisville in the mid-1960s and haven't seen since, sent the following significant comments:

    "I would offer a reading list to balance yours: Thomas Sowell, George Gilder ("Wealth and Poverty"), Hans Kung ("On Being a Christian") and Mark Levin. They and others make a case for ethical capitalism or the best answer for lifting all the boats, as John Kennedy suggested.

    "Economic equality for all is a beautiful utopian idea, but from Plato to Marx, this idea can only succeed with a dictator to enforce the sought equality. Do we want that? Radical socialism is failing everywhere. Keynesian economics has become very suspect. An increasingly bloated government is becoming very shaky.

    "Let us be an informed society."

    1. Charles, thanks for your comments and for your reading list. I am unfamiliar with Thomas Sowell and George Gilder, but I have just placed library holds on a book by each of them.

      I am quite familiar with Hans Kung, and generally very positive toward his ideas. I like his "Declaration Toward a Global Ethic" (1993) and agree with what he says in it: "We live in a world in which totalitarian state socialism as well as unbridled capitalism have hollowed out and destroyed many ethical and spiritual values."

      I also basically agree with what Kung wrote on page 566 of "On Being a Christian."

      I in no way agree with the excesses of, and the damage caused by, totalitarian state socialism--and neither did Debs, Thomas, or Harrington.

      But neither do I agree with Mark Levin--if you are talking about the talk radio host by that name and not the Jewish rabbi by that name who lives in greater Kansas City. I listen some of the Mark Levin Show from time to time when I am in the car going somewhere when he is on the radio, but I find him quite obnoxious because of his incivility as well as because of his very numerous unfair, unkind, and inaccurate statements.

    2. Ethical capitalism is an interesting idea, but the question is whether it can work in practice. What is sad it that it has become a necessary idea, as so much of capitalism has been shown to be short-sighted and sometimes seemingly ethics-free. For a quick read on ethical capitalism, check here:

      Thomas Sowell has been an economist with the conservative Hoover Institute since 1980. George Gilder was a key architect of supply side economics and served under Attorney General Ed Meese. Both are economic fundamentalists, so they certainly would be a contrast to most of the discussion on this blog. Of course, more can be learned about them, and ethical capitalism, with a quick internet search.

  11. Dr. Will Adams, a Thinking Friend who is a retired political science professor at William Jewell College, sent very helpful comments in a Word file almost as long as my blog article. But what he wrote needs to be shared in its entirety, so I am pasting it here with only some minor formatting changes:

    March 9, 2015

    Dear Leroy:

    Your essay on socialism was thought provoking. You note that there are different kinds of socialism, but I think additional clarification would be helpful. There are three schools of thought on the issue of the proper role of government in the economy.

    At one extreme is social Darwinism, which argues that the outcomes of the law of supply and demand (and other principles of capitalism) are always just. Those who produce goods and services that people will buy, prosper. Those who are too lazy or incompetent to be productive, suffer. That is justice. In its most extreme form social Darwinists even oppose charitable activities, on the ground that if you feed a poor man you are only prolonging the life of a non-productive unit and wasting resources (food) that should go to those who produce.

    At the other extreme is classical socialism, which argues that the only way to eliminate the exploitation which is inherent in capitalism is to replace it with a different economic system. Capitalists are rich and workers are poor because the capitalists own the means of production and worker don’t. Thus private ownership of the means of production is the basis of class oppression. If we vest ownership of productive property in the whole society, we eliminate class distinctions and we eliminate oppression of one class by another.

    In 1957 Yugoslav dissident Milovan Djilas wrote a book, “The New Class,” in which he argued that under communism, the party becomes the new ruling class. The problem is that while property can be socialized, power cannot. A commissar, though not an owner, who has power to allocate resources, including labor, is just as capable of exploiting the workers as a capitalist owner of industry.

    In between is social reform liberalism, which argues that the worst features capitalism can be remedied through regulation. The watchword is that government should do for the people whatever they cannot do for themselves. We may differ over what people should be able to do for themselves, but here are some examples. Women hired by the garment industry to produce clothing cannot prevent their bosses from locking them in a wooden building so they won’t leave work early, with the result that when fire breaks out, they all burn to death. So we have factory safety laws. Children as young as 7 cannot prevent factory owner from chaining them to a machine to work, so we have child labor laws. Many cannot save enough in a lifetime of work to provide for old age, so we have social security. Many cannot afford health insurance, so we have the Affordable Care Act or, in many countries, socialized medicine. The labor market in many fields is such that workers cannot make a decent living, so we have minimum wages and maximum hours laws. And of course, strong labor unions may be able to negotiate contracts which provide for decent wages and hours, health, safety, and retirement.

    So: which of these three approaches is most compatible with Christian ideals? Social Darwinism, which argues that starvation is an individual misfortune but is good for society? Classical socialism, which argues that the monopolies of capitalism should be replaced by the biggest monopoly in history under state ownership? Or social reform liberalism, which argues that we should feed the hungry, clothe the naked, and visit the sick and the prisoners?

    Yours truly,

    Dr. Will Adams