Early Christianity and Communism

When our representative was interviewed on BBC2’s Daily Politics Show in the context of the general election, Polly Toynbee commented that socialism seemed like early Christianity (see: www.worldsocialism.org/spgb/video/socialist-party-bbc-daily-politics-12th-may-2017). But there is a difference: they were only concerned with communism in consumption while modern socialism is about common ownership of the means of production.

Omnia sunt communia (‘all things in common’) is attributed to Thomas Müntzer, a radical theologian who during theGerman Peasants’ War, in February 1525, took control of the town of Muhlhausen where he imposed a ‘communist’ community in the name of Christianity. It was an epoch where itinerant preachers preached ‘the Kingdom of God on Earth’ which was biblical language demanding that the common lands the nobility have taken for themselves be restored to the community and the end of serfdom. Omnia sunt communia expressed the idea that everything belongs to everyone or in modern parlance, common ownership.

Some, such as James Connolly in Labour, Nationality and Religion, argued that early Christianity was originally ‘communist’-inspired, citing some of the church fathers.

What thing do you call ‘yours’? What thing are you able to say is yours? From whom have you received it? You speak and act like one who upon an occasion going early to the theatre, and possessing himself without obstacle of the seats destined for the remainder of the public, pretends to oppose their entrance in due time, and to prohibit them seating themselves, arrogating to his own sole use property that is really destined to common use. And it is precisely in this manner act the rich”. – St. Basil the Great.

The use of all things that are found in this world ought to be common to all men. Only the most manifest iniquity makes one say to the other, ‘This belongs to me, that to you’. Hence the origin of contention among men.” – St. Clement.

Nature furnishes its wealth to all men in common. God beneficently has created all things that their enjoyment be common to all living beings, and that the earth becomes the common possession of all. It is Nature itself that has given birth to the right of the community, whilst it is only unjust usurpation that has created the right of private poverty.”   and “The earth belongs to everyone, not to the rich.”   St. Ambrose

The earth of which they are born is common to all, and therefore the fruit that the earth brings forth belongs without distinction to all”. – St. Gregory the Great.

These ideals re-surfaced in the Middle Ages when John Ball a preacher in the Peasant’s Revolt, was reported as declaring:

When Adam delved and Eve span, who was then the gentleman? From the beginning all men by nature were created alike, and our bondage or servitude came in by the unjust oppression of naughty men. For if God would have had any bondmen from the beginning, he would have appointed who should   be   bond, and who free. And therefore I exhort you to consider that now the time is come, appointed to us by God, in which ye may (if ye will) cast off the yoke of bondage, and recover liberty”

In the 15th century, in the town of Tabor in Bohemia, there arose a religious sect, the Taborites, who tried to put these ideas into practice. They went one step further than most, ‘Everything will be common, including wives; there will be free sons and daughters of God and there will be no marriage as union of two — husband and wife.’ Historians describe how ‘Every one who came was ‘brother’ or ‘sister,’ as all social distinctions were unrecognised. The priests shared the work among themselves; some preaching in designated places (men and women being kept apart), others hearing confessions, while a third part communicated in both kinds. Thus it went on till noon. Then came the consumption in common of the food brought by the guests, which was divided among them, the want of one being made good by the superabundance of another; for the brothers and sisters of Mount Tabor knew no difference between mine and thine.’

The Taborites taught that ‘In these days there shall be no king, ruler, or subject on the earth, and all imposts and taxes shall cease; no one shall force another to do anything, for all shall be equal brothers and sisters. As in the town of Tabor there is no mine or thine, but all is held in common, so shall everything be common to all, and no one own anything for himself alone. Whoever does so commits a deadly sin.’

Any layman might become a priest. The members of that order were chosen from the community, and they, in turn, elected the bishops; but they were financially dependent on the community. Their functions, like those of the medieval priesthood in general, were in the main similar to those of the present state and municipal officials and teachers in Germany. Their duties were to organise and manage the various institutions of the Brotherhood, and regulate the connection between the several communities, as well as the relations of these with the outer world.

During the Reformation, various religious sects arose that advocated equality ‘in the sight of God’. Karl Kautsky in hisHistory of Christianitydescribed the Anabaptists as ‘the forerunner of the modern socialism.’ An Anabaptist advocate, Jan Matthys, took control of the town of Munster. Since the New Testament said money was the root of all evil these Christians abolished private ownership of money. Instead, it was collected and put in the hands of the Church which used it to hire ‘outside’ workers. The food was also collectivised and rationed out by the Church. Communal dining-halls were created and private homes were declared public property open to the countless poverty-stricken seeking God’s kingdom. Another sect at the time, the Hutterites said, ‘private property is the greatest enemy of love.’

When the English Civil War erupted, it was the custom of the times for the Bible to be quoted on every occasion with meanings read into the text and the political writings were cloaked in religious phrases. The Digger, Gerrard Winstanley, used the ‘Good Book’ to advocate a socialistic society.

Every tradesman shall fetch materials… from the public store-houses to work upon without buying and selling; and when particular works are made… the tradesmen shall bring these particular works to particular shops, as it is now the practice, without buying and selling. And every family as they want such things as they cannot make, they shall go to these shops and fetch without money…The earth is to be planted, and the fruits reaped and carried into barns and store-houses, by the assistance of every family. And if any man or family want corn or – other provision they may go to the store-houses and fetch without money. If they want a horse to ride, go into the fields in summer, or to the common stables in winter, and receive one from the keepers; and when your journey is performed, bring him where you had him, without money. If any want food or victuals, they may either go to the butchers’ shops, and receive what they want without money; or else go to the flocks of sheep or herds of cattle, and take and kill what meat is needful for their families, without buying and selling.’, (The Law of Freedom)

‘…buying and selling is the great cheat that robs and steals the earth from one another. It is that which makes some lords, others beggars, some rulers, others to be ruled; and makes great murderers and thieves to be imprisoners and hangers of little ones, or of sincere hearted men.’, (A Declaration from the Poor Oppressed People of England.)

Another Leveller  , William Walwyn, explained that the only true religion consisted in helping the poor:

What an inequitable thing it is for one man to have thousands and another want bread! The pleasure of God is that all men should have enough, and not that one man should abound in this world’s goods, spending it upon lusts, and another man (of far better deserts and far more useful to the commonwealth) not to be worth twopence.’

He said that ‘ the world shall never be well until all things be common’.

Then, there were the Ranters. ‘Have all things in common, or else the plague of God will rot and consume all that you have.’ declared Abiezer Coppe while Thomas Tany maintained that all religion was ‘a lie, a fraud, a deceit, for there is but one truth and that is love.’ He demanded that the people’s lands were rendered to the people.

Had these movements succeeded they may well have become themselves some sort of theocracies such as the puritanical state the religious radicals of the English Revolution imposed, for as Engels pointed out in The Peasant War in Germany, talking about Thomas Müntzer, ‘The worst thing that can befall a leader of an extreme party is to be compelled to take over a government at a time when society is not yet ripe for the domination of the class he represents and for the measures which that domination implies…Thus, he necessarily finds himself in a unsolvable   dilemma. What he can do contradicts all his previous actions and principles, and the immediate interests of his party and what he ought to do cannot be done. In a word, he is compelled to represent not his party or his class, but the class for whose domination the movement is then ripe. In the interest of the movement, he is compelled to advance the interests of an alien class, and to feed his own class with talk and promises, and with the assertion that the interests of that alien class are their own interests. He who is put into this awkward position is irrevocably lost.’

There are two essential aspects of socialism. One involves the common ownership of the means of production. The other involves the distribution of the means of consumption according to their needs. In was the latter ‘consumption communism’ which prevailed in those early social movements and they were unconcerned with common ownership in the sphere of production. The Taborite ‘communism’, for instance, was based on the needs of the poor, and not on production. While the needs of the poor engendered the struggle for ‘communism’, there existed the persistence of private proprietorship in production and these owners grew less willing to relinquish their surplus for the benefit of the poor.

What was lacking for a fully functioning socialist society was the capacity to provide for the needs of individuals and the community. But today we have the technology to supply everyone and as Sylvia Pankhurst explained, ‘Socialism means plenty for all. We do not preach a gospel of want and scarcity, but of abundance…We do not call for limitation of births, for penurious thrift, and self-denial. We call for a great production that will supply all, and more than all the people can consume.’

Modern socialism is concerned with who owns the means of production and distribution. The answer is everybody and nobody.


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