Objections to Socialism
From Gospels, &c.
By Conrad Noel
London, The Church Socialist League, n.d.
SOME people who have eyes and see not, ears have they but they hear not, seem so determined to preserve Capitalism at all costs that they misquote and misinterpret both Scripture and the Book of Common Prayer. Are not the poor to be content with their abject lot, say they. Has not God called them to it? So they misquote the Catechism, substituting has for shall, and reading that we must do our duty in that state of life into which it has pleased God to call us. A capitalist may suddenly be beggared, and find himself in the workhouse. The catechism does not in any way pledge us in the sentence under consideration to believe that God has called him to either Park Lane or the workhouse. It does not in any way suggest that any and every position in which one may happen to be placed is of God's pleasure and direct appointment: nor does it imply that he may not alter that particular position. Does anyone seriously and honestly suppose (except for the purposes of arguing with those wicked socialists) that an Italian child brought up to the state of brigandage (and many children throughout the world are brought up to one form of brigandage or another), does he seriously suppose that the state of life in which such a child finds himself is of the divine pleasure and appointment? The Catechism points us always to the Bible, and in the Bible we find a gradual unfolding of God's plan for the world, and God's plan for the world is a Commonwealth founded in divine justice and neighbourliness; in that Commonwealth alone will man be able fully to please God and serve his neighbours. He must do the best he can now, in those individualistic ruts of death in which it has pleased the devil to leave him, but he must seek to rid himself of these death-like conditions and to establish a Society into which it shall please God to call him, and in which he may more completely practice the golden rule, hurting nobody by word or deed. being true and just in all his dealings (well nigh an impossibility at present, because we have made he Law of God of none effect by our economic traditions) and loving his neighbour as himself. Not content with misquoting the Prayer Book, the Anti-Socialist misquotes the sayings of our Lord Himself, wrenching a text from its context, inserting the word shall, and thus obtaining from an incidental remark, a divine prophecy and sanction for abject and perpetual poverty. Has not the Lord said, "The poor ye shall have always with you," and is not Socialism an impudent attempt to remove that which Christ was desirous to retain? It is a safe rule of interpretation that only that picture of the Christ which is consistent with the whole synoptic narrative can be the true picture. Our opponents from the incident of the alabaster box, generally misquoted, and sometimes backed up by two other passages of the synoptics, portray the Christ as a preacher of the domestic virtues, training men for the skies by practice of these and acceptance of an unpopular view of his own claims, indifferent to social questions, unconcerned to alter political systems however much they were the expressions of unneighbourliness and injustice, unconcerned with the removing of these roots and the establishment of a fairer world. This portrait cannot be reconciled with the main fact of the narrative, the preaching of the Kingdom of God, which would have its material expression upon this earth, and in which all were to be brethren.
THE POOR ALWAYS WITH YOU.
But if our portraiture of Christ cannot be reconciled with the incident of the alabaster box, we have here a deadlock. Waverers may say with some amount of justice that although sometimes our case seems overwhelming, and although they would be resisting God and His Kingdom and be apostates from Jesus, if our case were indeed proved, they cannot accept it, unless it can fairly be reconciled with two or three texts upon which our opponents are continually harping.
"The poor ye shall have always with you." Is it the fact that Jesus was one day met by a group of social reformers who hoped ultimately to abolish grinding poverty and fulfil the Deuteronomic ideal (Deut. 15) and that he reproved them saying, " The poor ye shall have always with you." What are the facts?
The Christ who thundered against plutocracy (Mt. 6: 24), who urged the re-establishment of God's just Commonwealth, now no longer on national but on an international basis, who absolutely forbad private fortune building (M. 6: 19), having driven the money-grubbers out of His Father's Temple, is in immediate peril of arrest and of death. He foresees that his opposition to the plutocracy-loving Pharisees and his teaching of the inner laws of the Kingdom means the end. His disciples are afraid, but they cannot understand that He will be defeated and destroyed. He dines in the house of Simon the Leper. No one seems to realise the immediate danger, that in a few short hours he will be snatched from them, and that the Cause will be, as they would think, for ever lost. No one realised the situation, excepting a woman. There came a woman having a very costly cruse of ointment, and she brake the cruse and poured it over his head (Mk. 14: 3; so also Mt. 26). The ointment may have been worth a price which would have kept an artisan's family in comfort for a whole year. The act was lavish, spontaneous, immense; the prodigal expression of a breaking heart that understood that this was the end (Mt. 26; 12); those who stood by, and among them disciples, were honestly indignant. Their thrifty peasant minds were staggered at such abandoned generosity. The thing was as silly and as thoughtless as the folly of the widow who cast her mite into the treasury, abandoning all that she had. The creed of the Charity Organisation Society had its Adherents then as now; but Jesus perceives their obtuseness, and understands.
To their murmurings against the woman, "'To what purpose is this waste of ointment, for it might have been sold and given to the poor," He replies, "Let her alone; why annoy her? She hath wrought a good work on me. For ye have the poor always with you and whensoever ye will ye can do them good: but me ye have not always. She hath done what she could; she hath anointed my body aforehand for the burying. And verily I say unto you, wheresoever tile gospel shall be preached throughout the whole world that also which this woman hath done shall be spoken of for a memorial of her.
[In a later account, the incident is even more striking, for Judas is the grumbler, and cants about the poor, not because he has ever done anything for the poor, but because he is a thief and treasurer of the party, (Cf. Fourth, Gospel).]
The case against the building of God's Kingdom here on earth must be weak indeed when its enemies misquote and twist this beautiful story into a pronouncement against Socialism. It is just as monstrously ridiculous as it would be to wrench the saying of a modern Socialist from its context,, were he making a speech about the unscrupulous character of the Trust, about the excesses of the rich, the feebleness of the Government. Meanwhile, "the poor are always with us. We are faced with this perpetual problem of unemployment." our opponents should say whether it would or would not be fair for their journals to come out next morning with some such headlines as these: "Remarkable Conversion of a Socialist. Repudiates His Theories as Unworkable. Prophecies that Poverty can in the Nature of Things never Cease." It is quite possible of course that this would strike our friends the Opposition as fair, for it is a favourite device of their favourite papers.
There are, so far as I know, only three other objections brought from the gospels, if one discounts the wild misquotation which attributes the advice of John the Communistic Baptizer to marauding soldiers -- not to plunder the villages but to be satisfied with their pay -- to Jesus, and elevates it into an universal command of the Christ that no labourer shall ever form Trade Unions, nor seek to better the conditions of their class. but leaving this harmless fooling on one side, let us consider the assertion that (a) our Lord deliberately commanded usury, and (b) asserted that the propertied people had an absolute right to do exactly as they pleased with their possessions.
Now these deductions are drawn from the parables, and it is conceded on all hands to be a first principle in the interpretation of these stories to discover the immediate object for which each is told, the immediate point which our Lord seeks to illustrate, and on no account to press all the minor details of the story. For instance, if a modern socialist were to say I commend to you the keenness and whole-heartedness of the usurer in this evil competitive time. You the children of enlightenment should learn a lesson from that, and be as keen on establishing a just Commonwealth as they are on building up a private fortune, he would not be commending usury nor whitewashing the Stock Exchange. Now this is precisely the point about the parables in question, and about all parables. Our Lord, who as a matter of fact deliberately forbad all forms of interest (as interpreted by the Universal Church for a thousand years) forbad private fortune building and urged the evil of excessive possessions (Mt. 13: 22) exhorts his enlightened followers to be at least as keen and alert and business like in their work for the Kingdom, as are the smart business men, the Mammon servers, the children of this, the age of darkness. Hence the story of the unjust manager, or steward of injustice., and the story of the business like master who told his slaves to trade with his money during his absence. In the case of the former story, he urges his followers to be as wholeheartedly communistic as the business men (the fools: Cf. Lu. 12: 20) are whole-heartedly individualistic. He calls these people "the sons of this world." They are smarter, more alive, "wiser in their generation" than you. Make to yourselves friends by means of the unjust (Lu. 16: 9) property (i.e. sell that ye have, give alms, etc., both passages should be studied in their entirety. Lu. 12: 32-37), that when this system of unrighteous property shall be at an end, they (the early Church by this understands the poor with whom you have shared and whose cause you have urged) may receive you into the eternal tabernacles (of the Socialist Kingdom). A sentence or so later on, He concludes the same story by saying that excessive property is not our own but another's. (The early Church interprets -- superfluous property belongs to the poor by right. Cf. whole trend of Old Testament teaching. Also John Baptist, (Cf.) former pamphlet on the Kingdom of Heaven.)
"Our own" is the mutual service of the Kingdom and its expression in common belongings. If ye have not been faithful in that which is another's, who will give you that which is your own? No servant can serve two masters. For either, etc. Ye cannot serve God and mammon. And the Pharisees who were lovers of money . . . scoffed at Him. Here immediately follows the story of Dives and Lazarus and soon after, the incident of the immensely rich young man, and again, the generous rich man who did the best he could under the circumstances, giving half his income to the poor, and restoring fourfold if he had exacted more than he ought. And He said, never mind -- he may be an outsider and a tax gatherer, what you call a "sinner," but what he is trying to do proves him too to be a Son of Abraham. To-day is Salvation come to his house, for the Son of Man came to seek, and to save that which was lost. They were very near Jerusalem now, and they thought the entry into the Holy City would be a signal of a nationalist rising under the leadership of Jesus to establish the Kingdom. (Jn. 6: 15) so He told them a story to disabuse their minds of this idea. They must learn to wait, and must not be asleep while they wait. They must be alert and vigilant, as alert as were the slaves of a certain capitalist princeling who during his absence traded with the capital he left in their care. They proved themselves worthy of his trust -- all except one, who hid the money and did nothing. With this slothful slave the prince-merchant was furious. If, as his slave said, and no doubt there was truth in it for these people are sometimes apt to be harsh and unprincipled, if I am a harsh and unprincipled fellow given to thieving by means of usury (Lu. 19: 22), then on that showing "wherefore gavest thou not my money into the bank, and I should have gone and required it with interest ?" It is almost incredible, but his analogy drawn from the Mammon age, given to prick them into generous activity, with its covert condemnation of interest as a reaping of what one has not sown, in face of His direct prohibition of all increase (Lu. 6, 34, 35) and the whole weight of His teaching against riches is used to prove that Jesus Christ approves of the Mammon age of competition and capitalism, regardless of the blasphemy involved in an interpretation which would identify our Lord with a harsh Slave-owner and a cheat.
WITH MINE OWN.
In the same vein is the violent wrenching of the question, have I not a right to do what I like with mine own? " an assertion made by a good owner of property in a story told certainly not to exalt the rights of property, but rather to defend a doctrine in favour not with all Socialists but with a rather violent and extreme section of communist-Socialists, who say that all labour should be paid equally, not according to the worker's output but according to his opportunity, (Cf. ' because no man has hired us' with 'right and just.') Probably the immediate object of the story is not the rights of either capital nor labour, but the rights of the Gentile versus the Jew, but it could with far less violence be used as above than it could be twisted into a defence of capital. There is another objection, brought not by the educated, but by the opponent who still persists in thinking that Socialism consists in dividing up all existing properties. Such critics pounce on the word divide, and say, but our Lord refused to divide up. (Lu. 12: 14.) Now let us see what actually occurred. The incident is recorded by St. Luke only who introduces it at the commencement of our Lord's discourse on avarice, or the desire of private gain in contradiction to public service (i.e. the peculiarly individualistic vice of 'pleonexia.' The Church holds during the first centuries that the taking of interest is an instance of this sin.) For a man's life does not consist in the magnitude of his private fortune. Then comes the story of the successful farmer who hoards, who is plainly told by God he is a fool (Lu. 12) and immediately there follows this comment. So is he that builds a private fortune and is not rich towards God. We know by this time what rich towards God means, (i.e. sharing with the poor.) Don't worry about providing food and clothes and storing things (Lu. 6) there is abundance of these things and all could have them in abundance if you seek first God's Kingdom. Establish His reign and there will be plenty for all. Sell therefore what you have. Distribute alms, etc. (Lu.6; Mt. 6).
The sequel to this teaching is the incident of a man who was apparently under the dominion of the old grasping individualistic spirit. He was not a follower, i.e, not one who cared about the socialistic commonwealth that was to come. He was just "one of the crowd." (Lu. 13). He thought, if this Socialism means dividing up, perhaps this teacher would take my side in the squabble about the little bit of private property left to us. Perhaps he would take my side against my brother? One would ask anyone who knows personally the Socialist leaders of to-day, what their answer would be, or rather what their answer actually is, for these squabbles about inherited property are constantly occurring and a Socialist may be asked to interfere. Would not his answer be precisely that of our Lord ? You have mistaken the cause I represent. It takes no account of avaricious wrangles of propertied people. We are not judges of such matters. We are not dividers among the avarice-ridden property-mongers of this age. Who made me a judge or divider among you? Beware of avarice, etc.
THE TRIBUTE MONEY.
Finally a more serious objection is sometimes brought in connection with the question put to Christ about the tribute money. It is an objection not against Socialism, but against Christian people taking part or interest in any sort of secular government. In their eagerness to prove the socialistic clergy wrong, our opponents land themselves in the position of anarchists, i.e., that we have nothing to do with politics, and that secular and sacred are absolutely divorced. They really prove too much, for such a position not only condemns the whole work of the C.S.U., but the work of the quakeress, Elizabeth Fry, of the evangelical Shaftesburys and Wilberforces, of all statesmen who have believed that the Christian Faith ought in some way or other to influence public affairs. Of course, by the way, it would be an absolute and final condemnation of an Established Church. .,
Now the objection may be valid, but it is certainly rather stupendous and revolutionary, and for their sakes as well as ours, a careful examination is of supreme importance.
In so far as the people accepted the Messiah, they did so because they thought he would overturn the Roman Power and set up an immediate nationalist Kingdom. The Pharisees did not trouble to understand exactly what He did stand for -- but they were money-lovers and scoffed at I-lim, for they perceived that He did not want to overthrow Rome but Mammon and to establish a Commonweal!th which would include the people they despised -- the foreigner and the outcasts. Very well, they would set a trap for him, by which he would either lose favour with the democracy by announcing the rightness of the Roman dominion, or would betray himself into the hands of the authorities by denying the Roman right to levy taxes. They were not earnest enquirers on a point that really troubled them (Lu. 11: 54). He invariably took infinite trouble with such questioners. But the fool he answered according to his folly: the crafty according to his craftiness. As we say now, He proved a match for them all. He escaped the trap and pushed them into it. To him God's rights and the ideals of the Kingdom were not besmirched by paying taxes to the Romans. They were violated by Jews or Romans who were dominated by the commercial-individualistic spirit of mammon.
As to the right or wrong of this subordinate question of Roman dominion that dominated their thought, into that He would not enter. They had really settled that themselves by using the Roman coinage. There was a saying among the Jews that a people had not accepted its position as the conquered until they accepted the coinage of the conquerors. He slips out of the net by leaving them to settle whether or no in fact they did acknowledge the Roman dominion. What coinage do you in fact use? Let me see. Bring me a denarius. But it has Caesar's stamp on it. So you've already settled the question. You wanted to prove me an anti-patriot before these people; but yourselves according to your own story are anti-patriots. Render therefore unto Caesar the things which you by your usage acknowledge to be Caesar's and unto God the things that are God's. What then are these things of God? What is His Property? According to our Lord, as interpreted by His Church, His is" the Kingdom, the power and the glory." And therefore if we would render to God the things that are God's, we must devote ourselves to bringing His Kingdom into men's hearts, so that they may express it in their laws and lives.