From a contingently socialist Christian: No, Jesus was not a socialist.
The devil came and took Jesus out into the desert. The Gospels call this devil the Satan, which means the tempter. And what the tempter invites him to do, ultimately, is to worship power, the powers, the powers of this world. Jesus replies to the tempter, “You shall worship only God, not power”; and, with these words, the New Testament creates the cosmic atmosphere in which the Samaritan can dare to step outside his culture, and the guardian spirits that watch his “we.” He can claim that even though, as a Samaritan, his “I” is the singular of a “we,” he can transcend this limitation and reach out to the Jew. In a certain way, he is superior to the most powerful demons, watchdogs, dragons, horrors, and menaces which, in the world before Jesus, guarded the “we.”
— Ivan Illich
Of Christians and Socialists
The term “socialism” wasn’t invented until between 1797 and 1835, depending on how you do the etymology. I’m no math whiz, but that sounds like a couple of years after the Incarnation. From a purely empirical standpoint, then, I rest my case. Jesus could not have been a socialist, because “socialism” didn’t exist in first century Palestine.
Given that this retro-projection of current ideas onto a past wherein this idea — socialism — neither existed then nor could have, one can only assume that this conflation of the Incarnation with a modern political orientation has a mistaken or manipulative, instead of informative, aim. Manipulative, that is, to coax Christians (of multiple tendencies) into this or that “socialist” ideology (there are many), or for some Christians with leftist tendencies to adapt themselves to their secular leftists peers. There are some self-identified “Christians” who absolutely embrace modernity’s epistemological framework and have even relegated (“historical”) Jesus to the status of a pretty (yet useful) myth. There are likewise many Christians as well as non-Christians who say this without having any critical-philosophical grounding whatsoever and see Jesus’ ministry as a sort of proto-socialism based on the fallacy — which we’ll take on directly in a moment — that the welfare state is just Jesus’ feeding and healing of persons writ large.
Obviously, there’s a lot more at play underneath this claim that “Jesus was a socialist” than the impossibility of Jesus having been a socialist during his earthly sojourn, especially this false claim’s inclusion in the fallacy-factory of virtual “reality” and meme warfare.
Disclaimer: I’m not a theologian. I’m not an MDiv. I’m not an academic. What I’m about to say is coming from my own incomplete lay understanding of being Christian. And some of what I’m about to say may run afoul of other Christians; so I’ll say at the outset that I’m not some spokesperson for the collected works of Christians, or even of self-identified Christian socialists, some of whom will put socialism first and Jesus as a modifier. I’ve been a Christian for just under fourteen years — a studious one from time to time , but I can’t rattle off impromptu theses on theology, christology, soteriology, ecclesiology, et al. Some people who can rattle off these theses may take me to task on some things I say here . . . all good. I’ve been impertinent in the past, and I’m certainly still capable of it. I just write this stuff as a way of working things out; and I already disagree with some of the stuff I wrote last year, so . . .
I’m apophatic about God, accepting God’s incomprehensible mystery as given, but not about socialism. I’ve been a socialist of one kind or another for the last 30 years. I’ve affiliated or cooperated with post-Stalinists, Trotskyists, post-Maoists, social democrats, syndicalists, “independent” Marxists, municipalists, distributists, anarchists, Black nationalists, Marxist-feminists, etc. etc. etc., and been one or some of them at different stages — and I can hold my own pretty well intellectually with any of them. While I’m no theologian, I’ve been broiled and basted in Marx and his heirs.
Over the years, I’ve know and befriended many socialists, and some of them have been among the most principled, courageous, and selfless people I could ever want to know. Far more so in some cases than many who call themselves Christian. I still keep in touch with some of them. And some socialists, on the other hand, are obsessed, self-righteous assholes. Assholery is a promiscuous phenomenon. I’ve been one myself (shocking!).
My socialism this year is far different now than in my bygone Leninist days, no longer based on some “belief in” capital-S Socialism, which has meant many things to many people. “Socialism” now is a tactical choice about a given political terrain, because socialism in late modern politics stands across from, or attempts to stand across from and against capitalism, in its “democratic,” Chinese, and fascist guises. I find globalized capitalism to be the most abhorrent and dangerous social order in history — especially now as it cuts its own material foundations out from underneath it and heads into an abyss.
I’ll qualify this further down, but the main point is that being a socialist now, for me, a “subsistence socialist,” is taking a particular position. Not in the sense of ideas as “positions” (e.g., where do you stand on the abortion debate?), but a metaphorically spatial position — like seeking the most tactically advantageous point on actual terrain under a specific set of circumstances. I have to stand somewhere in this swirl of emerging events, and here is where I stand relative to the surrounding terrain —a contingent socialist, and as such I cooperate critically with other Socialists — except with the most techno-utopian ones (Walmart socialism), who’ve never bothered to question what Ellul called technique. With that brief orientation, then, let’s go.
The Law and Justice
Mikhail Gorbachev’s quip above states a falsehood. Jesus never said he would, or set out to, bring about “a Better Life For Mankind,” at least not in the social engineering sense implied above. In fact, Jesus called his followers to walk “the way of the cross,” which is hardly what secular socialists aspire to. Most socialists reject this “revolutionary subordination” (the way of the cross) outright as suicidal nonsense (“God’s foolish thing is wiser than human beings, and God’s weak thing stronger than human beings” -1 Cor 1:25).
The cross calls us to powerlessness (not impotence).
Jesus willingly submitted to Power as a form of perfect obedience to God. I’ve never seen a socialist program that said anything like that yet, though some socialists say they will commit to dying, and killing, in the name of a fantasy called The Revolution. Some even mean it. I did.
Jesus’ refusal to adapt his revelatory mission to power and ideology of any and all stripes was the main thing earning him the combined enmity of Roman authorities, Pharisaic leaders, Sadducee colonial surrogates . . . and even the enmity of Maccabee-inspired armed Judean rebels who likewise opposed the the Romans, the Pharisees, and the Sadducees. I’ll come back to Jesus, but to set the stage, we need Paul — the first on-record Christian author and a highly committed apostle.
Paul changed his name, after his Damascene moment, from Saul (a Hebrew king) to Paul (meaning “small man”). Before the Gospels were even written, we have Paul’s letters to the various churches he’d helped plant. And Paul is never easy to read. He stirred metaphors together like a soup, and made allusions that were highly local (and many now inaccessible). That’s why modern proof-texters have such an erroneous field day with Paul . . . because many of them don’t know what they are reading (even though they think they do), so they project their own ideas into the texts. But what can be discerned from Paul — using actual and rigorous scholarship — is that he had a very peculiar idea (to us) of the relation between the Incarnation and the law.
Those who’ve yanked Romans 13 out of its context (admittedly, it is written in a confusingly vertiginous way) are wont to claim that Paul argued for obedience to whatever version of the state, or “Caesar,” or law that prevails at any particular time. These claimants “back this up,” so to speak, with another entirely twisted proof-text from the Gospels about Jesus’ words, “Then render the things that are Caesar’s to Caesar and the things that are God’s to God.” People who use these two amputated proof-texts — like the church officials who collaborated with Nazis or the evangelical leaders today who recast Jesus as an American nationalist — seldom follow up with the fact that both Jesus and Paul were executed by Roman authorities.
As to the place of the law in Judaism, going back to the Gospels now, when Jesus undergoes the transfiguration, he bumps into two people: Moses and Elijah — chief representatives of the Law (Moses) and the Prophets (Elijah). The meaning of the transfiguration I’ll leave to others at another time, but the simple point I need to make is that the prophets, among other things, served in Judaism to tell the truth above and beyond the law — the law and lawgivers understood as carrying within themselves the potential for perversion. It was the court prophet Nathan who confronted King David with David’s technically legal murder of Uriah. Prophets had an important, and dangerous, role; sometimes prophets were killed. Jesus was our king, our priest, and our prophet.
We are all familiar today with the manifold ways in which law is used perversely to deliver injustice, even as our rationalization for the law is that it aims at justice. Paul was keenly aware of this phenomenon. When he counseled his followers to submit to authority, he again used the word “render” (Romans 13:7) to mean peaceful (not passive) subordination to authority, but qualifies with the word “owes” (Romans 13:8): “Owe nothing to anyone, except to love one another.” If we wanted to summarize Paul’s epistle to the Romans, we might say, worldly power an aspect of God’s providence in a broken world where we are ordered inescapably by violence (no matter the regime), and that we must live as peaceably as we can within such regimes, even obeying them . . . unless the law runs afoul of God. Paul did not counterpoise captivity in a social order against Christian agency, but argued for a kind of captive agency. This is only possible through the the Messianic Event, the Incarnation, which changes everything. We can obey the law insofar as the law obeys God, and in the light of the Incarnation. We can also ignore the law or break the law when Power acts unjustly.
Paul takes the long road to say this, because he’s speaking to mixed audiences, gentile and Judean, and he shifts back and forth between analogies that work for both audiences. His references to Law alternate between Mosaic and Roman law.
For, being free from all, I enslaved myself to all, that I might gain yet more. And to the Judeans I became a Judean, that I might gain Judeans; To those subject to the Law — while not being subject to the Law — that I might gain those subject to the Law; To those without the Law — though not being without God’s Law, but rather subject to the Law of the Annointed — that I might gain those without the Law; To the weak I became weak, that I might gain the weak; I became all things to all persons, that in every case I might gains some of them, But I do everything for the sake of the good tidings, that I might become a co-partaker thereof. (1 Cor 9:19–23)
At the end of the day, Paul marks a clear line between the works (erga) of the law — which leads us into the a cul de sac of injustice produced, by law, in the ostensible pursuit of justice — and the messianic politics of Jesus — vulnerability perfected as love, even the love of enemies . . . even unto death.
Karl Barth, a socialist theologian, wrote his famous thesis on Romans after witnessing the mass slaughter of the first world war . . . fought by legally-established states each following its own law. Barth, the socialist, rejected any attempts to capture and subordinate Jesus and the Incarnation within any “larger” human society, order, culture, idea, system, party, or achievement.
So why all this business about the law?
For starters, capitalism, socialism, communism, et al, all claim to aim at producing justice through the law . . . though the contenders have very different ideas about both. Anarchism (in several varieties, of course) suggests otherwise, with that black hole in its head where the state should be . . . not because the state is good, but because the state — in this broken world — is at this point inevitable. It is part of our built environment. We may be able to get away with breaking the state’s laws here and there, but we are incapable of escaping a world overdetermined by law. Our agency is captive agency — a human condition.
Socialism — of whichever camp — aims at the establishment of particular kinds of social order through law, which is seen as the mechanism to engineer the social body (and produce “justice”). At the risk of provoking palpitations among those who believe in a phantom-demon called “the future,” I’ll point out that, whichever laws socialists may implement, they will still be enforced by violence or the threat of violence. And therefore, they will produce injustice, as the law always eventually does. Derrida, if I recall correctly, said something similar.
Slavery was legal. Marital rape was legal. Capital punishment is legal.
When socialists are in charge, this socialist will buck as a Christian against socialist laws that produce injustice. Some few of us already buck at socialist schemes aiming to perfect the infernal project of universalized technocratic modernity.
The Sin of Impersonality
The Kingdom of God is here . . . but it is not a polity of laws. Jesus is not some left-wing shaman; he’s the Messiah, the god-human, Emmanuel . . . it’s a one-time deal, not some liberal Master Signifier. The “charity” that Jesus supposedly endorses — impersonally administered by bureaucrats — is antithetical to the message of the Gospels, which begin with the person, not the polity.
Here we need to differentiate between the person and the individual, between personalism and individualism. An “individual” is a modern metric — Homo economicus, without a place or time, de-gendered, de-historicized, transformed into a cipher: 1 abstract human organism. A “person” is situated, feeling, alive and wet . . . ensouled, broken, seeking, wondering, speaking, dying. A person is interdependent with other persons, and so not the disembodied, disembedded “individual” of liberal philosophy. A person is phenomenological, embodied and flooded incessantly and paradoxically with direct experience.
Liberal “charity” is de-personalized. When a church issues a call for money to send to a homeless shelter, for example, the givers and receivers never see, know, or love one another. I’ve seen Christian charities who reduce the objects of their charity to clients — and treat them with a pinched, authoritarian, judgemental efficiency. When we impersonally give that check to a mediator, we congratulate ourselves, then walk away, never having seen the recipient who we may in fact despise.
Charity at an administered distance is a cosmic cop-out, conscience-balm for the giver, and a soulless handout for the receiver. Most socialisms see this as the end-game — impersonally administered redistribution, sometimes conjoined with violent, or potentially violent, expropriations of things like “the means of production,” with neither thought for the ramifications of that violence nor any assessment of whether those “means” are desirable beyond some utilitarian calculus. Kind of a generalized, politicized version of liberal charity — still utterly impersonal, still reducing human creatures to statistics. “The poor” are a menu of “needs” to be administratively addressed.
In the Flesh
Again, we are entering the realm of The Law, where the universal swallows the particular and the singular (the personal) . . . then loses sight of justice and employs violence to cover its contradictions.
Let’s not submerge Jesus the Anointed into the generalization “Christianity,” nor the Christendom that perverted it . . . nor the modernity that seems to seek to displace it now. When Jesus was challenged by his enemies to define “the neighbor,” he didn’t talk about data, and he didn’t try to establish some norm. He told a story, about two people who were, by the lights of that period, members of enemy communities.
The Parable of the Samaritan, as we’ve come to know it, was not chiefly about people helping other people, as “good Samaritans,” a modern norm. He was speaking about two persons, and he describes personal feelings in a very personal way. When Jesus describes the reaction of the Samaritan passerby to the Judean laying beaten half to death in a roadside ditch, Jesus says the Samaritan felt moved in his splagchnon, his guts.
I believe . . . in a God who is enfleshed, and who has given the Samaritan, as a being drowned in carnality, the possibility of creating a relationship by which an unknown, chance encounter becomes for him the reason for his existence, as he becomes the reason for the other’s survival — not just in a physical sense, but a deeper sense, as a human being. This is not a spiritual relationship. This is not a fantasy. This is not merely a ritual act which generates a myth. This is an act which prolongs the Incarnation. Just as God became flesh and in the flesh relates to each one of us, so you are capable of relating in the flesh, as one who says ego, points to an experience which is entirely sensual, incarnate, and this-worldly, to that other man who has been beaten up. Take away the fleshy, bodily, carnal, dense, humoural experience of self, and therefore the Thou, from the story of the Samaritan and you have a nice liberal fantasy. (Ivan Illich, Rivers North of the Future, p. 207)
The story was in fact scandalous in its dissolving of ethnic boundaries, which my teacher Illich says established a new freedom, one where persons can become friends (friendship cannot be described with data) across these borderlines. I’m reminded in this context of how many socialists I’ve encountered who frantically police the boundaries of The One True Socialism.
Jesus was not a socialist, nor was he — as many in the Church of America contend — an individualist. He was, if we just have to assign him a ist-category, a personalist. The Parable of the Samaritan didn’t lift up a norm that is reproducible at various scales; he lifted up friendship, in the flesh. The Samaritan answered a call. Which brings me to a key point, which is that modernity — according to my teacher, and I am convinced he was right — was not some Hegelian antithesis to Christianity, but its disembodied, de-fleshed perversion. The perversion began, says Illich, with the attempt of the Church — as an institution — to regulate this new freedom to answer a call across ethnic and juridical boundaries using the Law.
[As a personal aside, I have lots of teachers, who I try to choose wisely, and I encounter them through one another. I found Illich through my teachers De Clarke (who I know) and Carolyn Merchant (who I don’t), who I in turn found through my teacher Maria Mies, and so on.]
When Christians rail against modernity — those who haven’t copped to it altogether — we ought to be mindful of its genealogical origins in the Roman Church (my church). The de-personalization of charity began with the Church, with its “charitable institutions,” and that perversion can be traced to a Church that aligned itself with Power, and in its establishment took a fateful turn toward the juridical. The institutions constituting the modern state were first conceptualized and developed under the aegis of the Constantinian Church. Illich refers to this fateful turn toward the juridical church “the criminalization of sin,” in which The Law becomes an instrument to enforce the gift illuminated in the Parable of the Samaritan — and therein lies the paradox and perversion.
Jesus, and his apostle Paul, defined charity as something fundamentally rooted in love, not some abstract “love of humanity,” but in-the-flesh friendship freed from the constraints of boundary-policing by the law and the ethnos. The Department of Health and Human Services is not fundamentally rooted in love, but in an idol of self-protective, soulless administration, the administration of people cooked down to data.
Western democratic ideas are an attempt to institutionalize an “ought” which by its very nature is a personal, intimate, and individual vocation. (Ivan Illich, Rivers North of the Future, p. 191)
Christians who claim that Jesus was for increased funding of the DHHS are wrong, or disingenuous. (I’m not saying, by the way, that I oppose increased funding for the DHHS. It’s part of our kosmos, part of the terrain. For the time being, we have to deal with it.) My other teacher, Stanley Hauerwas, once said that “war is not merely magnified violence.” The caritas (hospitality) of Christ is not merely magnified “giving” in the form of technocratic redistribution — which subtracts the encounter between persons who can smell each other, who can see in each other a spark of the divine.
[I found my teacher Stanley Hauerwas through my pastor and teacher Greg Moore, who also introduced me to my teacher Amy Laura Hall (who I know personally) and to my teacher Rene Girard (who I don’t). Stanley Hauerwas introduced me to another teacher, Alasdair MacIntyre, and so it goes . . . with teachers.]
Speaking of war . . .
War, Velocity, and Technological Idolatry
Experienced expanse cannot stand in a fraction of lived time.
We’ve only just glanced off the topic of war, and I learned at the textual feet of Stanley Hauerwas that even as a former warmaker, I could escape the logics of war, that I could be free of war (because it was abolished on the cross) and in so doing I learned a great deal more about war, and came to see its footprints all across history, yes, but deep and thick along the pathways of modernity.
War is about violence, but much more. War is about a constant arms race of adaptation, a self-perpetuating machine, and therefore about sheer velocity — something seldom remarked by socialists or Christians, but the latter do have some theorists in their court: Ivan Illich, Jacques Ellul, and Paul Virilio as just three important examples. I’m reading something on the latter two right now, so it’s very much on my mind. Speed and war — the arms race phenomenon — have never been more synonymous than in the late modern epoch.
Illich looked at velocity through the lens of an historian of the senses. Ellul looked at it through the lens of idolizing technology and of propaganda. Virilio looked at it as a phenomenologist. All three were witnesses to the destruction of 80 million human beings in a period of six years, the culmination at that time of the Progress myth. Ellul was born in 1912, Illich in 1926, and Virilio in 1932. (All three, I’ll also note here, were practicing Christians — Ellul Reformed and the other two Catholic.)
At the end of that war, more than 200,000 human beings were killed immediately by two bombs dropped four days apart — for no reason beyond intimidating a potential enemy — and many more died later from radiation poisoning and cancer. We continue to live under the long shadow of 14,000 + nuclear weapons.
But what’s the deal about speed?
Think now about your computer (you’re probably sitting in front of it right now). What’s one of the main selling points for new computers . . . they’re fast. When they aren’t fast enough, we say bad words and begin to hunt down the technical pathology.
Fast and slow have always been part of our vocabulary. Speed, or velocity — as a free standing abstraction — is far more recent. Galileo recent.
As an aside, most people indoctrinated by state schools believe that Galileo was called before the Inquisition for his conclusions regarding geocentrism versus heliocentrism; but that debate had been raging (in church and out) since at least Aristotle. Galileo’s trial — and no he wasn’t tortured, he was kept in a Vatican apartment with a valet — was a confluence of his own personal assholery, which was epic, and the historical context of a defensive Church besieged by the Reformation and the Thirty Years War. In this context Galileo wrote an argument for his hypotheses in the form of a dialogue between a smart man (heliocentric) and a stupid man (geocentric) that was based almost entirely on his five audiences with Pope Urban VII (the stupid one), who had merely played a friendly devil’s advocate with Galileo during very collegial conversations — insulting his former friend (something Galileo was known far and wide for doing throughout his life . . . shitting on friends). Did the Church overreact? Some, but it wasn’t about heliocentrism (Copernicus had written a treatise on the same thing years before, and dedicated it to the Pope). Galileo was actually tried because he published his hypothesis without proof, which he indeed did not have at the time. His punishment was being restricted to his palatial Florentine villa for a time.
Apart from this annoyed excursus on the state school modernity-apologetic fable about Galileo, what Illich noted about Galileo was the far more pernicious separation of time from space, resulting, e.g., in our current-day fractional expression miles per hour. Space and time separated. Until Galileo, the abstraction “speed” was never used. You could have a fast horse or a slow horse, and you could have fast or slow flight by a bird, or you could have a fast or slow stream; but streams, birds, and horses were never homogenized inside something called speed, or velocity.
My Marxist friend (and teacher) Jason W. Moore has written very good stuff about the latent and destructive power (which preceded and facilitated the Industrial Revolution) of cartography, surveying, and double-entry bookkeeping. Disaggregated abstractions swept away the phenomenologies of the past, where time and space, re Illich — which had never been experienced as anything except unified wholes — were broken into two. It’s a Foucauldian point, in a way — these mathematicized ways of knowing are species of power. And speed is all about power, and power all about speed . . . just ask your computer.
Yes, it’s a new kind of fix, a chimera unrecognized before Galileo Galilei, and hard to believe for a century after his death: the idea of s/t, space-over-time. We are here, Trapp, Rieger and I, to stress that neither falconers nor musicians nor philosophers grasped this conflation of space and time. That notion of motion did not fit their world, a world centered on each person, and stretched out before each, to be encompassed step by step. A world in which inns sat at a day’s journey; twelve hours had to fit from morn to night, in winter as well as summer; and squares were measured by feet. Experienced expanse cannot stand in a fraction above lived time. (-Ivan Illich, “Speed? What Speed?” para. 16)
Virilio, who wrote in suggestive bits and pieces, claimed that war was a major, if not the major, source of technological innovation — always aimed at speed, at killing the enemy faster or defending against an enemy who had become faster. I find this claim convincing, as I pointed out obliquely in my own book, Borderline, which was a collection of suggestive bits and pieces regarding the recursive relation between war and masculinity constructed as conquest. Conquest masculinity reproduces war; war reproduces conquest masculinity. Virilio saw the most destructive war in history begin with something called blitzkrieg, lightning war. The impetus to speed up attack reproduces the impetus to counter faster attacks with faster or improvisationally asymmetric defenses (speedily constructed).
Ground forces are overcome by airplanes, airplanes are caught early by radar, stealth aircraft overcome radar . . . so it goes. The internet where you are reading this is a war technology, created by the US Department of Defense to overcome the threat of large scale (nuclear) destruction of centralized communications systems. Mass-produced sanitary napkins began as bandages in WWI. WWI also produced the first wrist watches. The American Civil War brought reconnaissance aircraft (balloons), ironclad ships, the rapid expansion of railways and telegraph. Recent years have brought us unmanned aerial drones, smart bombs, lock-on missiles.
Ellul, not the phenomenologist that Virilio was, criticized technique (in French a different meaning than English), that is, the way machines and machinic systems reverse the user-used relation between humans and tools. Technique was his shorthand for humans becoming appendages to machines. When I go to whatever manner of waiting room nowadays, I see the people around me “waiting” with their noses buried in smart phones. In any factory, you can observe periods when they increase the line speeds.
The arms race phenomenon, said Virilio, has been generalized. Society has become “pure war,” its very architecture produced by arms races under the direction of scientific star chambers committed to the war-science-technology nexus.
“Politics is war by other means.”
Oliver Jones writes:
Virilio’s claims about the reconstitution of sovereignty in the wake of the bomb are exemplary of this kind of mythic analysis, which can be extrapolated as emblematic of the state or condition of Pure War. Virilio argues that the consolidation of nuclear strategy through a dual implementation of weapons systems, strategic doctrines and formal treaties governing their development and use has produced a situation in which the political “center” that endured the era of absolute monarchy through the Jus Publicum is displaced by an absolute weapon, anticipating absolute destruction. As the speed of electronic threat detection and countermeasure deployment intensifies and the time available for mounting a response shortens, the nature of the political decision to undertake war (that which is properly the object of classical sovereignty) is fundamentally changed. Instead, the decision is electrified by a technocratic objectivity operating at the speed of light, yielding to a kind of transpolitics, after Baudrillard, one characterized by the collapse of geographical time and distance in which “acts of war without war” deter and distill the potency of geopolitical eruptions and upheavals, neutralizing them into a kind of equilibrium or meta-stability of competing and coordinated strategic interests. This yields to an untenable irony in which it is the ultimate weapon that ensures the survival of the species. (link)
John’s Apocalypse tells us that every human kingdom becomes Babylon; and we can only truly resist with the blood of the lamb who is crowned.
Predominant socialisms tell us that resistance is an arms race — “politics is war by other means.”
And I’m not piling onto the “body count politics” of anti-communist propaganda here. That is, where communism has repeatedly been denounced using body counts. Body count politics employed to denounce communism, we should note, fails to take into account (and covers up for) exactly what Stalin, as a main example, was aiming to do (and what he did!).
Stalin was modernizing, in a race to make war preparations, albeit with his special and murderous earnestness. Taken as a process, then, industrialization in the Soviet Union took a couple of decades to accomplish the same thing that capitalist polities had taken two centuries to do. When you compare the processes, instead of the vulgar chronology, the West’s industrialization process was every bit as sanguinary, or more so, than the Soviet Union.
That’s not to apologize for Stalin; it’s to say that both capitalists and (“scientific”) socialists were possessed by the same devil — reducing human beings to statistics, to interchangeable parts, to a homogenized mass ripped from their formerly vernacular contexts, and made dependent on a tightly-managed (covertly wartime) industrial-technical grid.
The shared delusion of capital and most socialists alike is that this tightly-managed (covertly wartime) industrial-technical grid and our dependency upon it is, somehow, a Good Thing. I could riff off on Agamben’s “bare life” here, as the perfidious master-metric of Benthamite modernity, but we can leave that for another time.
Modernity, even socialist modernity, inevitably demands human sacrifice, in its origination, its maintenance, and its expanding perpetuation. And it depends increasingly on population “management.” In a very practical sense, then, capitalist development and “communist” development are the same. Reduction of persons to “individuals” on scatterplots and ledgers, bureaucratic control, a war on subsistence, and perpetual “economic expansion.”
In my earlier socialist days, I was fresh out of an army career lived as a perfect consequentialist; and so my biggest struggle with myself, unsurprisingly, was my desire for control. Hell, control was a principle of patrol planning — one of my areas of expertise. The steel-edged Marxism of my first comrades made me a perfect fit.
As I learned better how to relinquish control, especially after my conversion, I shifted my allegiance away from socialist discussions, programs, or campaigns that rely on large scale institutions that overstate their capacity to see the future, that worship the idol of techno-managerial control, and that promote the dangerous modern heresy of promethianism. I oppose nuclear power plants now. I oppose socialist nuclear power plants just as much as I oppose capitalist nuclear power plants.
As a contingent (subsistence, not “scientific”) socialist, then, and as an unmodified Christian, I have to reject not just the core values articulated by the modern/postmodern epoch (I believe they are fundamentally the same) of disembedding, disembodying, disaggregating, and disabling the human person. No, I can’t escape it, nor can anyone. As Paul suggested, we have to learn how to be captive agents, and not to idolize agency per se. Hauerwas and Willmon said a practicing Christian must see him- or herself as “a resident alien.”
What Christians can do is embody a different order, a different polity, as witnesses within this kosmos. Or we can accommodate it, as even some liberal (as well as Marx-inspired) Christians do by trying to shoehorn Jesus into modern ideologies that entail seeking justice through a set of laws. I reject this not because I oppose “socialism,” but because the Messiah cannot be contained thus without turning Jesus into a mere mouthpiece for a meme or a lawyer for technocratic modernity.
With regard to Jesus, apart from my personal convictions, it becomes clear once again that Jesus was not only not a socialist, but his ministry was not some socialist prototype. When he fed the masses with a handful of fish and bread, as the Gospels say quite clearly, he wasn’t modeling an impersonal bureaucracy for people coming two thousand years afterward; he was making signs of divinity to gather his people.
Jesus was not teaching political science.
He was teaching us how to live and die with each other personally in the light of grace.