It is often argued that because the ideas of Marx and socialistic thinkers were the ideologies of ruthless people like Stalin and states like the Soviet Union, such ideas are dangerous and must be abandoned. What’s interesting to consider is that the same could be said of Christianity and other belief systems held dear by many who make such arguments.
After all, Europe (and later the New World) was dominated by Christian states from the time of the late Roman Empire under Constantine and some 1,500 years thereafter, only weakening before secularism beginning in the 18th and 19th centuries. These states were ruled by Christian monarchs, often dictators with absolute power, many quite murderous indeed. Even when kings and queens were reined in by constitutions and power sharing with parliaments, the terrors continued. Nonbelievers, people of other faiths, and Christians that questioned or defied official doctrine, including many scientists, were exiled, imprisoned, tortured, maimed, or executed. It was a nasty business, from being sawed in half, groin to skull, to being burned alive. Wars against nations of other religions or other denominations of Christianity killed millions. This history was explored in When Christianity Was as Violent as Islam, so the reader is referred there for study. As hard as it may be for Christians to hear, these were governments and rulers that used indoctrination, fear, force, and murder against their own citizens to maintain and protect Christianity and its hold over nation-states. Kings and queens and officials at all levels of government believed fervently in Christianity and, as with religious leaders, weren’t afraid to mercilessly crush threats to it, no matter how small. If that sounds similar to what occurred in the Soviet Union and elsewhere with socialist ideology, it probably should.
One can imagine the protestations from the faithful. Something about how socialism led to more deaths, in a shorter timeframe, and in the modern age rather than more backward times. “So you see, socialism was way worse!” Perhaps the radical would then point out that, at least as of this moment, Christianity had a far longer reign of terror, about 1,500 years — while the first country calling itself “socialist” was only birthed a century ago. It might also be argued that there have been more oppressive states that called themselves Christian than called themselves socialist — recall that Christianity dominated Europe, the Americas, and other places (and with such a great length of time comes many new states). A full tally, actual careful study, would be necessary. Same for questions about “Well, the percentage of socialist nations that went bad is way higher than the percentage of Christian countries that went bad, therefore –” And on and on. The argument over what state ideology was worse seems somewhat pointless, however. Suppose it was conceded that socialism was indeed worse. That doesn’t erase the fact that these belief systems, with their tentacles around rulers and regimes, both inspired terrible crimes. That leaves the central question to consider: If we look at history and see that a belief system has caused great horrors, should we abandon that belief system and encourage others to do the same?
Here the Christian and the socialist may find some common ground, both supposing no. But the answer is more likely to be no for my belief system, yes for yours. Things then devolve into arguments over differences, real or perceived, between the ideologies. The Christian may focus on what we could call the beginning and the end of ideologies, a view that 1) the origins of a belief system and 2) the modern relationship to state power are what matter most to this question of whether a belief system that has caused much horror should be forgotten.
The discussion might go something like:
“Christianity’s founding texts call for love and peace, whereas Marx saw necessary a violent revolution against monarchs and capitalists!”
“Well, that didn’t seem to stop Christian governments and rulers from engaging in their own violence and oppression, did it?”
“It’s one thing to take something originally pure and twist it, do evil with it. But socialism started with a document approving of violence.”
“You know socialism existed before Marx’s writings, right? Before he left boyhood? He later refined and popularized it, but didn’t invent it (and many who advocated for it before him were Christians). And recall that the New Testament isn’t too kind to women, gays, and slaves, justifying much oppression and many atrocities throughout history. Also, wasn’t the U.S. birthed in violent revolution against the powerful? Marx’s writings and 1770s American writings like the Declaration and Paine’s works sound pretty similar, if you bother to read them. Calls for revolution are sometimes justified, even to you.”
“Many Christians don’t want an officially Christian country anymore. Church and state can be separate; we just want religious freedom. But socialists want an officially socialist country. You can’t separate socialism from government. Not in the way we’ve separated Christianity from government.”
“True, that is a difference. Government structure, law, and services are integral to socialism.”
While the first point doesn’t have much significance, the second point is a good one, an interesting one. It highlights the fundamental difference between the ideologies. You can separate Christianity from government, or Islam from government, but you can’t do so with socialism (however defined), any more than you could separate monarchism or representative democracy from government. A reasonable person could perhaps argue that a belief system with past horrors should be put to rest if it cannot be separated from power. But surely it’s not a line as clear as that; it only widens the discussion. The reader may fully support representative democracy, but it has caused many terrors as well, from the election of the Nazis to the 3 million civilians the U.S. killed in Vietnam. Should belief in representative democracy be abandoned on those grounds? The reader may likewise support the military and patriotism, both difficult to separate from government, both with very dark histories in our own country and others. And so on. (Conversely, philosophies that can be separated from state power are still capable of great evil, such as free market capitalism, or Islamic and Christian terror sects.)
Perhaps the real question, then, is can ideologies, whether or not they can meaningfully exist outside the political system, successfully cleanse themselves of their sins, or, rather, separate the wheat from the chaff? Can we reject the more virulent strains of belief systems and the people who follow them, leaving only (or mostly) the better angels of their natures?
Christians rightly understand that Christianity can be divorced from violence and oppression, even if it wasn’t in certain times, places, and people — and isn’t in a few places and people today. They understand that the problems Christianity attempts to solve, the missions of the faith, could be addressed in many ways, some more ethical than others. If one’s concern is that souls in other lands are lost and must be saved, Christians could engage in bloody conquest and forced conversion, as of course happened in history, or instead peaceful missionary work. Different people have different ethics (especially in different times, societies, and institutions) and will go about addressing problems and goals differently. It’s that simple. Importantly, Christians also understand that one method doesn’t necessarily lead to the other. The slippery slope fallacy isn’t one you usually hear in this context: no Christian thinks peaceful missionary work automatically leads to violent, repressive methods of bringing people into the faith. They know that the things they care about — belief in Christ’s divinity and resurrection, a relationship with the deity, a right way of living based on scriptures — can be imparted to others without it leading to tyranny and mass murder. Despite an ugly history, we all know this to be so.
Socialism, with terrible things done in its name as well, is a similar story. The ideology had its proponents willing to use terror, but it had even more peaceful advocates, from those famous on the Left like Eugene Debs, Dorothy Day, and Bertrand Russell to those famous to all, documented in Why America Needs Socialism: The Argument from Martin Luther King, Helen Keller, Albert Einstein, and Other Great Thinkers. (And don’t forget the peaceful Christian Socialists!) The things socialists care about — workers owning and running their workplaces, universal government programs to meet human needs, prosperity for all, people’s control over government — can be fought for and implemented without violence and subjugation. (This of course leaves out the debate concerning what socialism is and how it differs from communism and other ideologies, but that has been handled elsewhere and it seems reasonable to put that aside, as we’re also excluding the discussion of what “true Christianity” is, whether true Christianity involves top-down oppression and terror or bottom-up peace and love, whether it’s Catholicism or a sect of Protestantism, etc.) The societal changes socialists push for have already been achieved, in ways large and small, without horrors all over the world, from worker cooperatives to systems of direct democracy to universal healthcare and education, public work programs guaranteeing jobs, and Universal Basic Income (see Why America Needs Socialism). These incredible reforms have occurred in democratic, free societies, with no signs of Stalinism on the horizon. The slippery slope fallacy is constantly applied to socialism and basically any progressive policy (remember, racial integration is communism), but it doesn’t have any more merit than when it is applied to Christianity. Those who insist that leaders and governments set out to implement these types of positive socialistic reforms but then everything slid into dictatorship and awfulness as a result basically have no understanding of history, they’re just completely divorced from historical knowledge. Generally, when you actually study how nations turned communist, you see that a Marxist group, party, or person already deeply authoritarian achieved power and then ruled, expectedly, in an authoritarian manner, implementing policies that sometimes resemble what modern socialists call for but often do not (for example, worker ownership of the workplace is incompatible with government ownership of the workplace; direct democratic decision-making is incompatible with authoritarian control; and so forth). It’s authoritarians who are most likely to use violence in the first place; anti-authoritarians generally try to find peaceful means of creating change, if possible. So not only do we see how the reforms socialists desire are being won around the world today without death and destruction, a serious study of history shows that those reforms don’t lead to such things, but rather it’s a matter of groups and persons with violent or oppressive tendencies gaining power and acting predictably, just like when a Christian or Christian group with violent and oppressive tendencies gains power, past or present. The missions of socialism, as with Christianity, can be achieved in ethical ways.
Knowing Christianity and socialism, despite brutal pasts, can operate in today’s world in positive, peaceful ways, knowing that ideologies, people, and societies can change over time for the better, one sees little reason to abandon either based solely on their histories. A Christian may reject socialism on its own merits, opposing, for example, worker ownership of workplaces (or, if thinking more of communism, government ownership of workplaces); likewise, a socialist may reject Christianity on its own merits, disliking, say, beliefs unsupported by quality evidence. But to reject an ideology because of its history of violence surely necessitates rejecting your own; and to give your own a pass because it can exist benignly surely necessitates extending the same generosity to others. Remember, dear reader, the words of Kwame Ture (Stokely Carmichael):
You don’t judge Christianity by Christians. You don’t judge socialism by socialists. You judge Christianity by its principles irrespective of Christians. You judge socialism by its principles irrespective of those who call themselves socialists. Where’s the confusion?