Christianity, Morality, and Socialism

For some, searching for a surer moral footing upon which to launch a socialist political program has again raised the specter of Christian ethics.

Jesus Christ carries the cross to his crucifixion in a painting by Titian, ca. 1560. (Wikimedia Commons)

Christianity is having something of a moment.

Since around 2020, a fascination with liturgical Christianity, and specifically Catholicism, has bubbled up in a small corner of the intellectual world. That year, The Lamp, a magazine best described as “a Catholic version of the New Yorker” debuted. In its pages, you can find unlikely authors like the Italian Marxist philosopher Giorgio Agamben and the socialist essayist Sam Kriss. In 2022, Compact magazine was launched by a pair of traditionalist Catholic writers who also recruited a slew of left-wing columnists. Soon after, the New York Times ran a column titled “New York’s Hottest Club Is the Catholic Church.” While the headline was a joke, the claim was not unfounded.

Curiosity about the church, even from secular and economically progressive quarters, seems to be on the rise. A recent Catholic-inspired economic manifesto, Cathonomics, was hailed by the renowned progressive economist Jeffrey Sachs. And Pope Francis himself met with a group of Marxists to discuss how socialists and Catholics could work together to promote the common good. Whatever else results from that endeavor, it has so far produced a photo of the Marxist philosopher Michael Löwy shaking the Holy Father’s hand. Neither of them appeared to erupt into flames.

Consider, also, the publication and reception of the 2019 book Dominion: How the Christian Revolution Remade the World. The author, popular British historian Tom Holland, makes the sweeping claim that virtually all that we understand to be part of the rational, scientific, and progressive worldview — including the very concept of secularism itself — is the direct product of the Christian revolution. The book was a hit. Beyond commercial success it was a critical accomplishment. The left-leaning critic Ed Simon found it somewhere between “unequivocally correct” and “mostly convincing.” Terry Eagleton, a Marxist and a Christian, at the Guardian says he “is surely right to argue that when we condemn the moral obscenities committed in the name of Christ, it is hard to do so without implicitly invoking his own teaching.” Even the New Yorker, the éminence grise of American liberalism, praised the book. Not bad for a 624-page tome on the two-thousand-year history of Christendom.

What explains this, albeit modest, interest in Christianity? And why now? Well, for intellectuals of the Left, as Holland notes, Christian influence, interest, and inspiration is not new. “Repeatedly,” he insists, “the communism practiced by the earliest Church had served radicals as their inspiration.” It’s true that early socialists were not shy about proclaiming their godly inspiration: the Levellers, the Diggers, the sans-culottes, the Saint-Simonians, certain Owenite and Fourierist communities, etc. And though modern socialists disavowed the church, even the godfathers of Marxism acknowledged their shared Christian past as inspiration. Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels both reckoned that Christian thought marked an ideological stage of growth for humanity. After them, Karl Kautsky argued that Christianity was a proto-socialist ideology and acknowledged reverently the debt that “scientific socialism” owed its ancestors. And Vladimir Lenin is said to have expressed a not-insignificant admiration for the radically egalitarian Anabaptists who led the Münster rebellion.

Opponents of socialism have also long spotted the family resemblance. Oswald Spengler claimed that “Christianity was the Grandmother of Bolshevism,” while Friedrich Nietzsche had it that socialism was a despicable “residue of Christianity.” The self-proclaimed “superfascist” Julius Evola attacked both socialism and Christianity for their shared commitment to “progress.”

Meanwhile, the entire history of socialism is littered with moments where the prodigal son returns to the mother church, especially in times of turbulence and trouble. From the German American theologian Paul Tillich, who sought a unity between Christianity and socialism, to the French workerist Simone Weil, who sought to marry Catholic truth with the science of historical materialism, to the Polish intellectual giant Leszek Kołakowski, who shocked the communist establishment with his declaration that “Christ cannot be removed from our culture”; from the Slovene Catholic socialists of the 1940s to the Latin American liberation theologians of the 1960s, the fascination between socialists and Christianity is hard to ignore. More recently, Marxist-Lacanian philosopher Slavoj Žižek made the case “why the Christian legacy is worth fighting for,” while French Maoist philosopher Alain Badiou wrote a book about Saint Paul. We could name dozens more examples. But the trend is clear — socialists often find reason to turn (or return) to Christianity for answers to certain questions.

The Shared HQ of Western Communism and the Church

In 1973, right under the Vatican’s nose, the leader of the western world’s largest Communist Party announced the “historic compromise.” Locked out of power by the NATO-backed Italian establishment, Enrico Berlinguer sought to change his fortunes by allying with his country’s largest Catholic party. But seeing the move as hardened realpolitik sells it short.

In one telling, the compromise had nothing really to do with ideology. It was a simple electoral calculation. And yet both the Soviet Union and the United States vehemently opposed the union of Catholics and Communists — on one trip to Bulgaria, Berlinguer was nearly killed in a strange auto accident that he was later convinced was an assassination plot. Still, Berlinguer was sure that the Catholics and the Communists had found in one another a considerable degree of common interest, especially in their shared critique of a rising liberal individualism.

Closing in from above in the form of a new mass consumerism, and from below in the form of the rising “youth culture,” a radical ideology of the self threatened the staid conformism of postwar social democracy. For Berlinguer, that also meant a threat to social solidarity itself, and even the pursuit of historical progress. Socialism of the postwar era could be credibly accused of reducing man to his functions, and thereby reducing materialism to mere economism. Successful social democratic governments offered to raise wages, increase the consumptive power of the working class, and extend the social welfare programs — rinse and repeat. But Berlinguer feared that as the postwar moment came to a close, “malaise, anxieties, frustrations, drives to despair, individualistic withdrawal, and illusory escapism” would characterize the social landscape. Mere economism wouldn’t cut it.

The Church also recognized these tendencies in modern life, and a consistent and steady drumbeat of criticism of the new consumerism, the new narcissism, and the new forms of despair began to emanate from the Vatican. For Berlinguer, whose wife went to daily mass, there was a potential for genuine symbiosis. His aim was to bring about “collaboration among the great populist currents: Socialist, Communist, Catholic.” He argued that “la questione morale” had become the leading political question of the day, and that the answer to it would determine the future of socialist politics.

He must have stumbled onto something. During the period of the compromesso storico, the Italian Communist Party reached its apotheosis, winning over more than a third of the electorate — the highest vote share of any Communist Party in any capitalist country anywhere in the world. Yet Berlinguer was not without critics. Far-left-wing groups in the operaismo tradition accused him of selling out to the conservative Christian Democrats, foreclosing the possibility of a more radical rupture with the conciliar elements in Italian society. (Among the most famous inspiration for these critics was Mario Tronti, who, in a remarkable irony, later declared himself a “Ratzingerian Marxist” as a way of demonstrating his support for the supposedly archconservative Pope Benedict XVI.) Nonetheless, Berlinguer was indisputably the country’s most beloved politician.

Alas, on March 16, 1978, the whole project crashed to a gruesome end when the left-wing terrorists of Brigate Rosse kidnapped Aldo Moro, the moderate leader of the Christian Democrats. Fifty-five days later, his body was found in a trunk, riddled with bullets. It was a brutal answer to Berlinguer’s moral question.

In 1991, the once-mighty Communist Party split. The largest party that rose in its place modeled itself after Bill Clinton’s Democrats. Shortly thereafter, Silvio Berlusconi remade the entire country in a mold that could hardly be described, by anyone’s conception, as moral. Communism fell and then Catholicism. Today, no one believes in much.

The Rise (and Fall) of the Millennial Left

The Berlinguer moment was probably the last significant encounter between socialism and Christianity. Since then, a few isolated intellectuals have probed the moral questions that bind the two traditions, but not much has come of it. So, why now?

In hindsight, it seems obvious that the wave of millennial socialism should have risen when it did. In the wake of a great global recession, amid inconceivable levels of inequality and obscene scenes of poverty and squalor, socialism was resurrected, quite literally, from the grave. From Syriza to Podemos, from Bernie Sanders to Jeremy Corbyn, from Lula to AMLO, young socialists popped up everywhere. Why? Because those in the socialist tradition still provide compelling answers. The basic case for socialism remains sound. Could it be that the same is true, albeit in very different ways, for Christianity?

A recurring story among some of the socialist (or formerly socialist) writers who have found their way to (or back to) the church is that they found something profoundly wrong in the Left of their time. Not merely programmatically wrong, as in advancing the wrong set of policies, nor socially wrong, as in representing the wrong voter base, nor even ideologically wrong, as in advancing an inadequate theory, but ethically wrong. A big void where a moral theory was supposed to be.

If millennial socialism succeeded in nothing else, it certainly helped suppress the selfishness, atomization, and alienation encouraged by the dominant market culture. It provided, for a time, a haven in a heartless world. But in 2020 that all came to an end. “Leftism” came to be associated less with the lofty ideals of socialism and more with the grubby partisan resentment — or even ressentiment — that characterized liberal politics more broadly. The victorious proletariat failed to arrive at the ballot box (again), so we took comfort in the rage of the streets. The capitalist class proved to be too difficult to challenge, so we bashed the cops instead. Determining universal collective needs (and how to provide them) seemed impossible in this landscape, so we championed the pursuit of infinite individual wants and called it “doing socialism.” Not coincidentally, it was around this time that activists started wanting to “abolish” everything. The mantra seemed to be: if it makes our political enemies really mad, it must be really good.

The Great Awokening, in retrospect, was a kind of Christian tent revival without Christ (but with a well-funded clergy, of course). Love of the victim manifested as a fervent anti-racism, stewardship of nature turned into celebration of individual acts of ecoterrorism, and all heretics were viciously condemned. And wherever that pseudo-Christian spirit didn’t prevail, nihilism did. Wendy Brown, the UPS Foundation Professor at the Institute for Advanced Study (her actual title) even made the positive case for a Weberian nihilism in a series of lectures in 2023. Thus a hopeful socialism of the 2010s was replaced by the baleful doomerism of the 2020s.

But with the isolation of lockdown came the opportunity for reflection and reconsideration. A number of big questions had been shuffled aside during the late 2010s for the sake of practical expediency (we have an election to win!); or in the name of political comity (we have to keep the coalition together!); or to keep social peace (it’s not worth raising that!). But once Donald Trump had finally left office, these questions came roaring back. In the maddening atmosphere of the racial reckoning, isolated in COVID lockdowns amid the deadening of political hope, and the wrathful return of the culture wars, millennial socialism appeared inadequate. Could a morally neutral egalitarianism really satisfy in this political moment? Is egalitarianism even morally neutral?

The Future Is Moral

Today, many of those who identify as leftists take pride in being excised of “bourgeois” morality, sentimentality, and prudishness. But, as Berlinguer might warn, we replace bourgeois morality with amorality at our own peril. On any number of important questions pertaining to the family, faith, work, discipline, education, etc., some radical now responds, “Who needs it?” This may be a politically incorrect answer, but it’s not a dishonest one. Any socialist confronted with genuine moral questions is forced to confront a paradox: socialism, the most moral of causes, seems to lack a coherent moral theory all its own.

Historically, in Christian Europe and Latin America, it was easy to avoid this problem. Whenever moral questions became political questions, socialists simply retreated to popular Christian positions, as in Kautsky’s defense of the family or Lenin’s admonition of prostitution. There was no specifically Marxist defense for these supposedly “backward” stances, but the hegemony of Christian morality made them almost unthinkingly reasonable. Contemporary socialists have no such recourse. Instead, in the wake of the norm smashing New Left, we typically default to a liberal morality: the live-and-let-live attitude that says it’s none of my business how any particular person lives their life, as long as it doesn’t interfere with my ability to do the same.

But this retreat to liberalism is morally bankrupt and politically barren. Is it possible to advance a vision of the good society without a stable conception of what it means to live a good life? Moral questions are inextricably bound up with political and economic ones. Searching for a surer moral footing upon which to launch a socialist political program has again raised the specter of Christian ethics.

Consider the revival of interest in Alasdair MacIntyre’s work. An intellectual biography of the ninety-five-year-old philosopher was first translated into English in 2022 then reviewed positively that year in Jacobin, of all places. Meanwhile, this year, MacIntyre was profiled in the left-leaning London Review of Books by an editorial board member of the journal Radical Philosophy. MacIntyre was, in the late 1950s and early 1960s, a dazzlingly brilliant young Marxist intellectual. He wrote Marxism and Christianity when he was only twenty-three, advancing the argument that Marx was not simply influenced by Christian ideas but actively imbued his theory with a Christian ethos. Later, MacIntyre made his name professionally with the breakout After Virtue in 1980, a book that looks squarely at the moral vacuity of modern liberal democracy. Shortly after its publication he converted to Catholicism.

MacIntyre’s political legacy has been hotly debated (right-wing communitarian or Marxist wolf in paschal lamb’s clothing?), but the sudden resurgence of his ideas does suggest that the moral hole in the middle of socialism yearns to be filled. Liberalism has no answers. To the question “What is best for me to do, as an individual?” it offers nothing. And when asked “What is best for us to do, as a society?” it simply shrugs. In theory, the former question is meant to be left to the realm of the private, and the latter to democratic deliberation. In practice, however, both are ultimately decided by the market. To surrender moral questions to liberalism, then, is to surrender social questions to the market. And worse, to surrender political opposition to market morality to the opportunists of the reactionary right.

Whether socialism can survive without its bedrock Christian assumptions remains to be seen, but it certainly cannot survive without the working class. And working-class rejection of libertarian responses to crime, social normlessness, drugs, and more has been a stable feature of left-wing political atrophy. In the coming period, socialists will again and again be forced to confront moral questions as social questions. The push for the legalization of more drugs will expand — the State of Oregon at first said yes, and then said no. Sports betting and other forms of digital gambling continue their spread. Next up is whether capitalist societies will liberalize assisted suicide — an option that will surely be taken up by the poor, the disabled, the lonely, the economically “redundant.” What do socialists say? Is it a good society that allows the consequences of its madness to be killed off “consensually”? Does it make one a good person to advocate for it?

Until and unless the Left can develop a consistent moral theory of its own, Christianity will continue to have something useful to say about the biggest social questions that confront modern society. Maybe it’s worth listening.