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Socialism, a term of disputed and often imprecise meaning, refers to a socio-economic formation which exists for the benefit of most members of a society, particularly working people. Perhaps the most acceptable characteristic of socialism is the collective ownership of at least the major means of production in a society operated by workers in the interest of the entire society. Another useful approach is to view socialism as an alternative social theory or system to capitalism and exaggerated individualism in which existing class antagonisms would be gradually resolved. Currently a wide range of socialisms have been described, such as utopian, scientific (or Marxist-Leninist or communistic), democratic, nationalist, “really existing”, developed or advanced, Euro-communist, Latin American, Arab, African, religious (Christian), or “socialism with a human face”. Because of the many ideological conflicts, including those among socialists, the term “socialism” has become frequently only a slogan without concrete content.
Both socialism and communism are pre-Marxian concepts upon which a definitive Marxist interpretation was stamped. Pre-Marxian thinkers such as More, Babeuf, Saint-Simon, Fourier, Proudhon, Owen and Weitling criticized the evils of the industrial revolution and laissez-faire capitalism and proposed or organized idealized communities in which the interest of all members of the community would be respected and oppression and exploitation would be removed. These authors were inspired by their understanding of the message and mission of Jesus and considered these socialist projects as the expression of true Christianity of
Such schemes were resolutely rejected as utopian socialist by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels. In order to make socialism “scientific” they combated all other interpretations of socialism, which they regarded as unreal, and thus gradually promoted the Marxian understanding of socialism as “the necessary outcome of the struggle between the two historically developed classes – the proletariat and the bourgeoisie” (Engels). The notion that Marxism was an objective, scientific world-view allowed for little discussion not only about the inevitability of socialism but also its constitutive elements. Socialism came to be seen as a transition between capitalism and communism, marked by the state as a revolutionary dictatorship of the proletariat, but in which such conditions would exist that would erode the need for the state. In socialism the distribution of abundant material goods produced by everyone’s unselfish contribution is supposed to correspond to a person’s contribution to society. In communism, consumption would be based entirely on one’s “real” needs. Taking his clues from the experiences of the Paris commune (1870), Marx believed that socialism would bring about the free association of producers, who would take power into their hands by revolutionary, though not necessarily violent, means. It would happen first in the most advanced capitalist countries, where labour is already sufficiently socialized to be able to carry out this take-over effectively.
While Marx believed that religion* would wither away along with many other super-structures of class society, he was not overly concerned about its existence in socialism, though he believed that freedom of religion and separation of church and state* would be features of socialism. The financial support of churches would be based upon the unpressured commitment of believers.
Marx’s relation with his contemporaries, the Christian socialists, was conflictual. Generally he was scornful of Christianity and the churches, and they reciprocated this animosity. The French socialists Lammenais, Blanc and Cabet were all believers and could not accept Marx’s atheism. The socialist divorce with religion arose from Marxist materialist metaphysics, and hence only a small number of Christians espoused socialist ideas and engaged in organizing the working class. They included Friedrich Naumann, Christoph Blumhardt, Hermann Kutter, Leonhard Ragaz, Keir Hardie, the Society of Christian Socialists, the Church Socialist League, and Pope Leo XIII’s support to the organizing of Catholic labour unions. Christian socialists employed a fairly large number of Marxist concepts, with less emphasis on conspiracy and violence, although Marxists rarely adopted Christian insights.
After the death of Marx and Engels, the socialist movement gradually split into two antagonistic movements: democratic socialist and Leninist or Bolshevik. The democratic socialists believed that it was possible to take control of the state apparatus by legal means, namely the ballot, while the Leninists held that power could be wrested from the capitalists only by revolution, such as the great October revolution of 1917.
Unanticipated by Marx and Engels, the first country to become socialist was Russia, a country more feudal than capitalist. Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov-Lenin was able not only to control the seething dissatisfied masses but also to give Marxism his own stamp, hence “Marxism-Leninism”. Originally the Bolsheviks and their sympathizers expected world revolution, but they were later satisfied to hold power in one country, the Soviet Union. This situation lasted until the end of the second world war; since then other countries became socialist. In the Soviet Union the building of socialism entailed central political and economic state monopoly, nationalization of industry, collectivization of agriculture and an increasing grip by the Communist Party not only on political life but also on cultural, educational, recreational and spiritual life. The dictatorship of the proletariat became the dictatorship of the Communist Party.
Under Lenin’s successor, Josif Visarionovich Djugashvili-Stalin, the process of concentration of power continued until the dictatorship of the party was replaced by dictatorship of the central committee, then of the politburo, and finally of the general secretary, Stalin himself. The transformation of the Soviet Union into a socialist country was exceedingly bloody, and the demand was made that the socialist movement around the world blindly conform to the dictates from the Kremlin. The state became nearly all-powerful; its government, statist and totalitarian. Ruling was in the name of the working class; however, a new bureaucratic ruling class monopolized power internally and dominated the communist movement internationally.
Not until the 1950s, and in many instances much later, did any Communist Party develop an alternate road into socialism. Although many splinter movements arose within this branch, they were combated relentlessly. Bolsheviks promoted the impression that no other form of socialism was legitimate. In those countries in which a communist take-over was successful, there was at the outset a slavish copying of the USSR model. The Soviet Union, to distinguish itself from other Marxist socialist countries, declared itself to be a country of developed or advanced socialism, even proclaiming that it had reached the communist stage of socialist development. The other countries declared themselves as countries of “really existing socialism”.
Only in the 1950s, especially after the death of Stalin, did any alternate roads emerge. The greater diversity was primarily in the form of nationalistic socialism, such as the Titoist mould in Yugoslavia, Chinese Maoism (which later, like Yugoslavia, transformed into a reformist socialism), socialism with a human face during the Prague spring in 1968 in Czechoslovakia, the Polish model, Castroism, and Sandinista socialism in Nicaragua. Under Mikhail Gorbachev, such variants were finally accepted by the Soviet Union, which attempted a restructuring (perestroika) and liberalization, or openness (glasnost), of its own form of socialism. By the late 1980s a large number of socialist countries experienced a profound economic, political, social and ideological crisis which caused a number of unanticipated but profound changes affecting these countries internally and internationally.
The Leninist and Stalinist approach to religion was almost uniformly restrictive and oppressive. Instead of waiting for religion to wither, administrative means were employed to root out religion. Actual religious policies varied from tactical cooperation to greater degrees of toleration or overt manipulation of churches, but the overall strategy and expectation was that religion would die out. Generally it was asserted that religion always plays a reactionary role. Only a small group of humanistic Marxists from socialist countries asserted the usefulness of a dialogue with Christians and other religious people, but only since the 1960s was there a grudging official admission that religion is capable of motivating some people for “progressive” goals. In some socialist countries (e.g. Poland, Czechoslovakia, Yugoslavia, Hungary and East Germany) a Christian-Marxist dialogue* took place, mostly among a small, but relatively influential, group of intellectuals.
Originally the churches opposed the communist take-over, and many Christians remained in passive opposition. But gradually other forms of relations developed. Christians often became passive objects of the processes of socialization, and some churches attempted to find a non-confrontational niche in socialism. A small but vocal minority of Christians became advocates of socialism and attempted a Marxist-Christian synthesis. The most creative response was the attempt by some Christians to define themselves as a “church in socialism”, whereby they sought to be loyal yet critical in their attempt to contribute to building the kind of socialism which respects human and moral values rather than destroys them.
It was different with democratic socialists, and even with the so called Euro-communists (primarily communists of Italy and Spain) in the West. The totalitarian and repressive practices of Leninism, Stalinism and Maoism were rejected, and a commitment was made to preserve and advance the humanistic heritage. Socialistic political parties entered the political arena, sometimes won elections, and influenced their society by establishing policies for the welfare and protection of the rights of workers and of the entire society. They committed themselves to pluralism in society, parliamentarian democracy and a mixed economy. This movement took place in nearly all Western European countries.
A number of Christian theologians in the 20th century sharply criticized advanced capitalist forms of human denigration but also distanced themselves from the terror in Marxist-Leninist socialism. The most prominent such critics of the older generation were Walter Rauschenbusch, Karl Barth, Paul Tillich, Reinhold Neibuhr, Jacques Maritain, Emmanuel Mournier, Joseph Hromádka, and former Russian Marxists exiled in the West such as Nicholas Berdyaev, Sergei Bulgakov and
Piotr Struve. The theologians most significant in the second half of the century in
reacting to socialism were Karl Rahner, Charles West, Jan Milic Lochman, Johannes Metz, Jürgen Moltmann, Giulio Girardi and Dorothee Sölle. In different ways they all took Marxism and socialism seriously and believed it to be a Christian responsibility to espouse the values common to both Christianity and socialism.
The World Council of Churches became concretely involved with the issue of socialism because member churches operated in both socialist and non-socialist countries. But in a more general sense socialism impacted the ecumenical movement on account of its striving for social justice and equality, issues that from the beginning concerned the ecumenical movement. “Christian socialists” participated actively at the Stockholm Life and Work conference in 1925 (see ecumenical conferences, capitalism). Amsterdam 1948 tried to steer an independent course by rejecting “the ideologies of both communism and laissez-faire capitalism”, as if “these two extremes were the only alternatives”. The notion of “a responsible society”* was offered as a tool of assessing both the values and shortcomings of various social systems. Evanston 1954 deplored the totalitarian practice of communism while also rejecting sterile anti-communism. The Geneva Church and Society conference in 1966, influenced by third-world concerns, was the first to give a positive meaning to “ideology” as a mobilizing force and to raise the revolutionary challenge to the level of a Christian option. The programme on Dialogue with Men of Different Faiths and Ideologies concentrated on inter-religious dialogue. But emphases like “the church and the poor” or the Programme to Combat Racism have raised fundamental issues of economic and social conflict which could not ignore the socialist challenge.
In the late 1960s liberation theology took a favourable attitude towards revolution and socialism. Here a number of theologians such as Gustavo Gutiérrez, Camilo Torres, José Míguez Bonino, José Miranda, Leonardo Boff, Enrique Dussel and Hugo Assman, as well as grassroots movements such as Christians for Socialism, viewed Marxism as a socio-economic analysis which might help the masses of Latin America and the rest of the third world to end the poverty and domination caused by capitalism. Liberation theologians are not uncritical towards Marxism but seek a positive re-interpretation of Marxism which would foster a socialism friendly to religious concerns. While the Cuban socialist experiment is not negligible, greater interest was manifested in the brief experience of building socialism in Chile, and in the Nicaraguan Sandinista socialism.
Other forms of liberation theology exist in the Philippines, Sri Lanka and South Korea, where various attempts are made both independently and under Latin American influence to create Asian liberation theologies. Similarly in Africa (e.g. in Tanzania, Zimbabwe, Senegal and South Africa), some theologians are espousing African socialism. The nature of much of third-world socialism is highly unclear. The rhetoric is often Marxist, but the content is frequently traditional local collectivism coupled with the desire for development and independence.
Socialism is both divisive and unitive for Christians. It is divisive because many Christians clearly favour it and even claim that, of all social systems, it is the most Christian, while others vehemently oppose it. It is unitive because there is a tendency of Christians to collaborate across denominational, theological, and other lines of separation when it comes to working together in supporting or opposing socialism. Either way, socialism is a serious ecumenical concern.
In the second half of 1989, encouraged by the process of democratization and restructuring fostered by Mikhail Gorbachev, a mostly bloodless revolution (except in Romania) took place in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union which affected other socialist countries. The impact of this transformation may be equated with the Bolshevik revolution, which came to be rejected so thoroughly that a new period was ushered in for which there is as yet no better name but “post-Communist”. Some trends of that revolution are democratic socialist, but others are frankly anti-socialist. The end result is not entirely discernible, but by the second half of the 1990s Stalinistic communism was dismantled in all but a handful of countries (e.g. North Korea and Cuba), and the idea of multi-party democracy had been accepted in all former communist countries except in China, where the political system of communism continued to function but the economic system underwent major reforms in the direction of a mixed economy.
The greatest changes took place in the former Soviet Union and Eastern Europe. In those countries a monumental political and economic transformation took place. The Soviet Union was formally dissolved in December 1990, dividing itself along the lines of the former federal states of the USSR. The largest successor state was Russia. In some instances countries were partitioned (Soviet Union, Czechoslovakia and Yugoslavia). In others extensive, bloody wars were waged (e.g. between Armenia and Azerbaijan; in Chechnya, a federal unit of Russia, with the federal government; in Yugoslavia a series of wars between 1991 and 1995 led to the disintegration of that country), in others to demonstrations and riots (Serbia, Bulgaria, Albania), and in all huge economic displacements followed. The classic features of Marxist-Leninist socialism were abandoned, even by political parties that previously embraced such concepts dogmatically. Most Communist parties collapsed and lost all political impact; others changed their name to a socialist variant and were either freely elected to govern or continued to maintain themselves in power by non-democratic methods. The impact of those monumental changes are not yet clear in the third world, but there too the appeal of socialism became considerably reduced (e.g. in Ethiopia and Nicaragua Marxist-led governments were replaced), but some fringe extremist guerrilla groups (e.g. in Peru) continued a violent struggle.
For the churches in former Marxist socialist countries, the changes generally meant that they obtained true religious freedom. Many churches were able to return to social prominence and even considerable social and political influence. In large parts of the former Marxist countries, the major churches and religions became identified again with nationalism – re-establishing an ethno-religious symbiosis characteristic of the pre-Communist period. In a few instances this return to powerful identification between church and nation became a contributive factor for the outbreak of wars and for the attempted repression of smaller religious communities. Yet, in at least some of the countries religious people were in the forefront of the movement for democratization.
The world ecumenical movement is adjusting to these profound transformations of socialism, particularly the transition from communism to post-communism. In several former Communist countries a large number of religious leaders and people became explicitly anti-ecumenical; an era of less, rather than more, cooperation between religious communities characterized the 1990s, while some religious communities relished their ability to re-enter full and unhindered participation in the world ecumenical activities, institutions and programmes. Whether ecumenism or anti-ecumenism will prevail in the short run is not yet clear.
n M. Buber, Paths in Utopia, London, Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1949 n S.N. Bulgakov, Sozialismus im Christentum?, Göttingen, Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 1977 n H. Desfosses & J. Levesque eds, Socialism in the Third World, London, Praeger, 1975 nL’Eglise et le socialisme, Paris, Nouvelles Editions Latimer, 1972 n W.H. Friedland ed., African Socialism, Stanford, Stanford UP, 1964 n W. Huber & J. Schwerdtfeger eds, Frieden, Gewalt, Sozialismus, Stuttgart, Klett, 1976 n A. Pfeiffer ed., Religiöse Sozialisten, Olten, Walter, 1976 n W. Sombart, Sozialismus und soziale Bewegungen (ET Socialism and the Social Movement, London, Dent, 1909) n L.P. Wallace, Leo XIII and the Rise of Socialism, Durham NC, Duke UP, 1966.
The text above is extracted from “ Dictionary of the Ecumenical Movement ” 2 nd Edition , published by World Council of Churches (courtesy of World Council of Churches)