Has Christianity a Solution for Social Problems?

Capitalism is its own grave-digger. That is to say it provides and develops the means by which the capitalist social order will be brought to an end. Before historical processes mature thus far capitalism will have virtually buried many of the philosophies and religious ideas which in its day it nurtured. It is almost self-evident that where capitalism is the more developed there religion has the least influence over the minds of the workers. The explanation lies in the material conditions peculiar to capitalism.

Religion had its origin in the childhood of the human race. The farther man’s history is traced back, the cruder his religious superstitions. Each group had its god, which primitive man invested with the miraculous powers of being able to influence tribal fortunes in the struggle for existence. In the workings of nature he saw manifestations of the god’s pleasure and displeasure, of his power to deprive him of his sustenance. Crudely, therefore, he supplicated the gods with offerings and sacrifices. Refined examples of these rituals are practised among Christians to-day.

Tribal man’s god-ideas were related to his material conditions of life and to his degree of understanding of those conditions. As the material conditions changed, so his god-ideas changed. With the growth of larger tribes and confederacies of tribes, the tribal gods disappeared and new ones took their place, which reached maturity in the slave civilisations. Thus the way was prepared for a new conception of the god-idea—the abstract God of Christianity. The slave empires had reached the civilised stage where man’s knowledge of the world, his philosophic speculations upon life, demanded a conception of God which the older religious superstitions did not meet. In the Roman Empire Christianity arose to meet that need. It did not introduce the god-idea, but a particular conception of it, which was a modification of the God-ideas evolved from savagery.

Socialist teaching is not concerned with controversies which favour one god concept against another: it is concerned only with god-ideas in themselves and how they arose. This approach is in conformity with the Materialist Conception of History, which holds that, broadly speaking, the ideas of any particular epoch are related to, and can only be explained by the material conditions then prevailing. This approach religionists find devastating. To deny its fundamental correctness would seem like denying what appears to be self-evident. Yet its logic explodes the basis of Christian teaching. The Christian conception of the revealed God, eternal and unchanging, is destroyed by history’s revelations. The Christian god-idea is shown to be just one of the manifested forms through which the god-idea has evolved. The idea of an independent, all-powerful god, laying down laws and precepts which hold good for all time, is just a man-made myth. True, Christianity has persisted beyond the times which gave it birth, but only by adjusting its teaching to changing conditions. Protestantism appeared when Feudalism was breaking up and expressed in a religious form the antagonisms of the new capitalist class to the old regime. No theologian can explain why the Reformation arose in the fifteenth century and not the fifth. To simple minds the amours of Henry the Eighth might seem a sufficient explanation—but that cannot explain its rise in Germany, France and Holland. Nor, except by the material conditions, can it be explained why the Christian god-idea arose in the days of Rome and not in the period of savagery. God-ideas have changed and have become modified as society has evolved to higher forms and man’s knowledge has increased. Capitalism has brought into existence and has developed scientific knowledge of the workings of the world in which we live. Manifestations of nature, which man understands and can explain, are less attributed to the unseen activities of a god. Hence the modern tendency to the abstract and the impersonal in the god concept among many modern Christians. Yet modern Christianity and savage superstition are fundamentally alike: in both the god-idea has its basis in ignorance.

Socialism and Christianity, therefore, are opposites. The one arises from a knowledge and understanding of the material world and the other from ignorance of it. Socialism is based upon science, Christianity upon faith. It is the refined equivalent of savage superstition. Its ritual has features common to the Pagan and earlier savage practices with which they have a common origin. Christian-Socialism is a meaningless phrase. Yet capitalism has produced movements which claim adherence to both ideas. In the early nineteenth century, Charles Kingsley was a prominent advocate of Christian-Socialism. Kingsley’s “Socialism” expressed nothing more than a compassionate interest in the worst evils of working-class poverty. He gave no support for, and, indeed, had no conception of a social order in which class society did not exist. To the workers he was condescending, conventional and pious: he was as sincere as his Church training permitted him to be. Kingsley’s successors in the Christian-Socialist tradition conformed more or less to type. There is, however, one movement which claims deviation from the type. It is a movement within the Church of England which describes itself as the Catholic Crusade. They pose Christ as the militant and revolutionary agitator, opposed to the tyranny and oppression of his day. They claim that general acceptance of Christianity will end oppression and class society; would, in effect, bring about what Socialists are working to get: though they call it the “Kingdom of God on Earth.” It is a pretty theory and adds just one more to the countless |varieties of “true” Christianity.

But it does just not bear critical examination. The Crusaders have the usual Christian habit of giving Biblical extracts just that twist which suits their purpose. Thus they quote such excerpts from Christian writings as “He shall drag the mighty from their seat and shall exalt the humble and meek,” as though such exhortations were intended to have worldly significance. They can bear no such interpretation. To early Christians they meant nothing more than an adjustment in the next world of the inequalities and sufferings endured in the earthly life. It could not have meant adjustments in this world: for the very good reason that the world had not then reached the stage where it was ready for classless society. The idea of Socialism had not, and could not, have shaped itself in the mind of man. Any “dragging down of the mighty from their seats” might have clothed in religious form the antagonisms of the oppressed slaves of the Roman Empire for their particular ruling oppressors, but it had no connection with the idea of society organised without a ruling class. Society then could not have been organised in any other way than on a class basis. The Christian ethic was the opposite of what some of its modem unorthodox interpreters imply it to mean. It offered compensation in the “next world,” not in this one. It exalted poverty and submissiveness. The ruling class of the Roman Empire adopted it because it made the slaves more contented. With modifications it has been adopted by subsequent ruling classes. To the slave, compensation in another world was attractive, because the material conditions of this world did not show a way out of their miseries. It is different with the modern working class. The system of society in which they are the subject class, the wage-slaves, shows the material social forms through which their oppression and poverty can be ended. True working-class consciousness of its purpose is incomplete, but the unmistakable evidence that it is moulding itself is everywhere.

The duty of the Socialist is clear. The material world demands critical analysis in order that social problems are understood. The solution to those problems must be explained in unambiguous and practical fashion. Working-class problems are material; their solution, Socialism, consists of material proposals. To countenance the clothing of those proposals in the mystic garb of a dying superstition does not assist working-class understanding and would be a disservice to the Socialist movement.

H. W.

(Socialist Standard, March 1939)

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