Acton Institute Powerblog

The 3 things you need to make ‘socialism’ work

(Photo credit: Saint-Petersburg Theological Academy. CC BY-ND 2.0.)

Occasionally, our antagonists think they have discovered the silver bullet argument in favor of “Christian socialism.” One such apology recently came into my inbox. In its entirety, it read:

Acts Chapters 4 and 5 Tell of The Holy Spirits Work with The Apostles to Establish SOCIALISM for The Christian Church…What further proof is needed ???

Recourse to the exceptional model of charity practiced by the early Christian community in Acts 4:31-35 is as perpetual as it is erroneous. As I’ve noted in print and on television, the early church was not socialist. The “lived experience” of my church, the Eastern Orthodox Church, has concluded that socialism will do anything to eradicate Christianity, and every other religion.

However, let’s agree that the apostles and exactly one of the many church communities they founded “had all things in common” – where believers gladly laid all their earthly goods “down at the apostles’ feet: and distribution was made unto every man according as he had need” (Acts 4:31-35).

There are still arrangements like this. They’re called monasteries.

Before exploring how monasteries show us how “socialism” can work, let me acknowledge that I’m hesitant to present monasticism as “socialism.” The voluntary profession of monasticism has nothing to do with the state seizing the means of production or the mass terror that inevitably follows in its wake. For our purposes, let’s grant the extremely tenuous assertion that these are somehow extraneous (rather than intrinsic) features of socialism. Furthermore, monks and nuns often support themselves through enterprise. As Dylan Pahman has shown in his work on markets and monasticism, some monasteries did (and do) acquire vast communal wealth through market-oriented exchange. But if you’re less interested in social engineering than in living a life where people share all things in common, monasteries are the only viable alternative.

When monks and nuns enter the monastery, they give up all their worldly goods and vow to own nothing of their own. All the monastery’s goods are distributed by the ruling abbot or abbess, who redistributes from each according to his ability, to each according to his need. The abbot’s supersensitive spiritual life, and knowledge of the individuals who confess to him, discerns the unseen spiritual needs of each. All monks offer their ora et labora in common, without regard to personal benefit, because that best serves the salvation of their (relatively modest) portion of the population. If they find monasticism does not further their salvation, they may voluntarily leave and return to the dog-eat-dog world at any time.

Other arrangements of communal living have been tried and found wanting. Joshua Muravchik noted that the median existence of early socialist communes amounted to a mere two years. The Israeli kibbutz system similarly broke down over parents’ wishes to give the children of the kibbutzim a better life.

Compare communes’ record of failure with monastic success. The world’s oldest monastery, the Coptic Egyptian Monastery of St. Macarius the Great at Scetis, has lived the monastic lifestyle continuously since 360 A.D. (Some claim that distinction belongs to the Bulgarian Orthodox Church’s St. Athanasius Monastery in the tiny Thracian village of Zlatna Livada.) A 2008 study found that “Benedictine monasteries in Baden-Württemberg, Bavaria and German speaking Switzerland have an average lifetime of almost 500 years” – 463 years, to be specific. Monasticism is, in other words, a going concern.

These monastic example prove that, if it ever hopes to succeed, Christian “socialism” has to include two vows beyond dedication to economic equality: chastity and obedience.

Chastity: Monks and nuns vow a life of celibacy, abstinence, and sexual purity (including in thought). Monastics take this vow so seriously that they will often not speak to a member of the opposite sex. In fact, women are barred from visiting Eastern Orthodoxy’s holiest monastic site, Mt. Athos. “Do not let your intellect be taken prisoner by lust through assenting to sexual thoughts, defiling yourself inwardly,” wrote St. Mark the Ascetic in the collection of monastic texts known as The Philokalia.

The West does everything in its power to obliterate this virtue, from encouraging teenagers to wear dresses that fit four year olds to Planned Parenthood’s disturbing sex “education” curriculum. Monasticism demands the spirit of renunciation of earthly things, even in their licit use. This would lead to an austere life of asceticism – a necessary disposition for anyone living under socialism. After all, monks take a vow of poverty. Notions of “Fully Automated Luxury Communism” are bunk.

Obedience: Monks and nuns agree to follow the orders of the monastery’s leader unquestioningly. The abbot or abbess assigns work assignments and gives out material possessions – and privileges – as he or she sees fit. Decisions are absolute, and there is no court of appeals.

Socialism mimics this, but it transfers the power to the secular state’s monomaniacal ruler. Slowly, the nation becomes a cult of personality. Even benign forms of socialism demand coercion. Jeremy Corbyn once informed the media, “Under socialism, you’ll all cooperate.” Socialism substitutes following government diktats for walking in God’s commandments – and the love and liberty they bring.

Chastity and obedience are prerequisites that make a life of sharing possible. One cannot underestimate the fact that, as celibates, monks do not fret themselves over the material well-being of their children (nor spousal nagging about it). But is that the full explanation: “no money, no honey”? All three monastic vows omit the most important thing that made early church “socialism” work:

A living, active, and obedient faith in Jesus Christ: Monks and nuns living the ascetic life do so to completely consecrate their lives to Jesus Christ. Researchers have found themselves unable to explain why, for instance, monasteries do not have the frequent turnover of communes. In a 2009 paper, Nathan Smith ascribed this to the “addictive” character of worship:

What makes monasteries different is that when monks and nuns engage in worship (for which the monastery provides an especially favorable environment) they also build spiritual capital, thus acquiring an increasing “taste for” (or “productivity in”) worship, which makes them unlikely to wish to leave the monastery in future. … The “addictive” character of worship solves the turnover problem and enables monasteries to make (voluntary) socialism work.

But why, precisely, is worship so intoxicating? This author has heard church choirs and cantors whose vocal stylings mimicked withdrawal symptoms. Smith is missing something profound.

The intangible success behind this life of sharing and self-denial is the indwelling and perpetual cultivation of the Holy Spirit. The father of Western monasticism, St. Benedict of Nursia, concluded his Rule by exhorting monks to “fulfill with the help of Christ this minimum Rule which we have written for beginners; and then at length under God’s protection you will attain to the loftier heights of doctrine and virtue.” Such pure selflessness cannot come about except by a profound, all-encompassing, and total faith in our Lord, God, and Savior Jesus Christ. “God is the beginning, middle and end of everything good,” wrote St. Mark the Ascetic, “and it is impossible for us to have faith in anything good or to carry it into effect except in Christ Jesus and the Holy Spirit.” This alone explains how they live a heavenly life on earth.

Those who wish to live this kind of lifestyle are invited to do so. But those who speak of remaking society must be willing to go the full distance, beginning with themselves. Trying to make “socialism” work with anything short of this full commitment is the prelude to futility, apostasy, and destruction.

Rev. Ben Johnson

Rev. Ben Johnson (@therightswriter) is an Eastern Orthodox priest and served as Executive Editor of the Acton Institute (2016-2021), editing Religion & Liberty, the Powerblog, and its transatlantic website. He has extensively researched the Alt-Right. Previously, he worked for LifeSiteNews and FrontPageMag.com, where he wrote three books including Party of Defeat (with David Horowitz, 2008). His work has appeared at DailyWire.com, National Review, The American Spectator, The Guardian, Daily Caller, National Catholic Register, Spectator USA, FEE Online, RealClear Policy, The Blaze, The Stream, American Greatness, Aleteia, Providence Magazine, Charisma, Jewish World Review, Human Events, Intellectual Takeout, CatholicVote.org, Issues & Insights, The Conservative, Rare.us, and The American Orthodox Institute. His personal websites are therightswriter.com and RevBenJohnson.com. His views are his own.