By Simon Cuff

Socialism is a dirty word. In politics on both sides of the Atlantic, socialism is perceived as an unhelpful label for a politician seeking election to public office. During election periods, the specter of socialism is invoked to suggest images of failed regimes, large queues of unemployed people, state surveillance, and an environment hostile to religion and proclamation of the gospel.

Even Bernie Sanders, America’s most prominent socialist, was at pains to distinguish himself from these images with the qualifier democratic for his particular brand of socialism in distinction to the popular images the term calls to mind in the American imagination.

If you’ve ever used a public road, sent your child to a public school, or received a federally funded COVID-19 vaccine, you’ve experienced something of what socialism intends.

In practice, socialism is a much more mundane affair. If you’ve ever used a public road, sent your child to a public school, or received a federally funded COVID-19 vaccine, you’ve experienced something of what socialism intends. In a British context, the National Health Service represents the high point of British socialism, universal public health care “free at the point of delivery.” As one commentator wryly noted during the pandemic, President Trump’s treatment for COVID-19 at the hands of federally funded medics is the closest an American has come to the kind of medical treatment those of us living in Britain take for granted and for which we regularly give thanks.

Socialism is less about political ideology and more about infrastructure. The stuff of everyday living that contributes to the common good: healthcare, education, roads, and transport. It entails a commitment to common possession of these goods in order that no private individual may exclude another from these universally beneficial features of daily life. In practice, socialist governments tend to fail when they put themselves in the place of the wealthy individuals whose control of these amenities they have sought to replace. The success of socialism is the means at which it arrives at genuinely public or “common” participation in these everyday goods.

Some Christian readers will balk already, saying, “Socialism is un-Christian and un-American.” It might come as a surprise that the originator of the pledge of allegiance, Francis Bellamy, was a Christian socialist — thus the pledge’s call for “one nation, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all” designed to build a wider participation in public life, particularly for newly arrived Americans, through growth in civic pride and public education.

Likewise, it might surprise some that it’s impossible to tell the story of European socialism without noting its Christian roots. Gary Dorrien’s magisterial Social Democracy in the Making: Political and Religious Roots of European Socialism makes this case. In a British context it is famously, and probably rightly, said that the Labour Party “owes more to Methodism than to Marxism.”

Two specters haunt the Christian relationship to socialism. First is Marx himself. It’s thought that Marxism is integral to socialism and Marxism necessarily entails atheism. However, there are forms of socialism, including Christian socialism, whose grounds lie elsewhere (notably in Scripture) and which have little or no relation to the thought of Marx.

Marx’s comment that religion is the “opium of the people” is often misunderstood as a rejection in principle of religion, rather than a comment on the misery of working people. Marx’s emphasis is on the suffering of those exploited by capital: “religious suffering is, at one and the same time, the expression of real suffering and a protest against real suffering. Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature.” Marxism, not least as a form of Hegelianism, is not in principle incompatible with Christianity. Many have gone further to show their fruitful compatibility, not least Denys Turner in his Marxism and Christianity, building on the legacy of Herbert McCabe.

The second specter is the reality of 20th-century communism and with it the brutality of state-sponsored atheism. However, communism, especially statist communism, is not socialism. Socialism is primarily concerned with the public and cooperative participation in essentials of living and public life, leaving open the question of what these essentials are and how this public participation is to be achieved. Communism is an ideology of common ownership and possession distinct from socialism.

As a political theory, even communism is not itself at odds with Christianity. Indeed, Acts 2 and 4 set forth a vision of Christian living that extends beyond socialism as a form of Christian communism: “no one claimed private ownership of any possessions, but everything they owned was held in common” (Acts 4:32).

Theological understandings of the communal nature of possessions (later referred to within Catholic social teaching as the “universal destination of goods”) were the majority opinion coming out of the medieval church. St Ambrose reflects this understanding: “You are not making a gift of what is yours to the poor man, but you are giving him back what is his. You have been appropriating things that are meant to be for the common use of everyone. The earth belongs to everyone, not to the rich” (On Naboth 12.53).

Likewise, St. Thomas Aquinas, while recognizing private administration of goods as the best means of communal stewardship, insists their possession remains communal: “man ought to possess external things, not as his own, but as common, so that, to wit, he is ready to communicate them to others in their need” (Summa Theologica 2.2.66). We see here foreshadowed the principle of delivery at the point of need we encountered in the British National Health service.

Christian socialism is distinct from both secular communism and socialism, chiefly on the theological underpinnings for communal participation in social goods. These are variously grounded in the doctrine of creation — God as Creator and source of all that is, and individuals not as ultimate owners but stewards of those gifts — and his particular concern for the poor which we encounter throughout Scripture, not least in the Magnificat’s celebration of God’s exaltation of the lowly and filling of the hungry.

These theological foundations of socialism generally and Christian socialism in particular, alongside the increasing levels of inequality in Western democracies and the precarious living standards provided by the rise of the low-wage and largely unregulated so-called gig economy, mean that the questions and problems that all forms of socialism seek to answer and address prompt a reevaluation of this particular tradition of social ethics.

The Rev. Simon Cuff is tutor and lecturer in theology at Saint Mellitus College, London.