Socialism’s Obituary Is Premature

by Philip Wogaman

J. Philip Wogaman is professor of Christian social ethics at Wesley Theological Seminary in Washington, D.C.

This article appeared in The Christian Century, May 30-June 6, 1990, pps. 570-572. Copyright by The Christian Century Foundation; used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at Article prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.


Capitalism must generate a little love and human kindness in order to function in the human interest. At the same time, if an all encompassing socialism has proved too cumbersome, inefficient and corruptible, that does not mean that disaggregated forms of socialism are unworkable.

The new conventional wisdom has pronounced socialism dead. Economists of the Austrian and Chicago schools (von Mises, Hayek, Friedman) long ago announced that it would and should die. In the 1970s a number of influential neoconservatives embraced capitalism with the enthusiasm of new converts. Now even committed socialists like Robert Heilbroner have conceded defeat. In a celebrated New Yorker article, Heilbroner put it dramatically: "Less than seventy-five years after it officially began, the contest between capitalism and socialism is over; capitalism has won" (January 23, 1989). The experience of the socialist countries, he acknowledged, makes clear that the marketplace distributes goods better than "the queues of a planned economy." While Heilbroner issued somber warnings about the possible effects of the apparent victory of capitalism, his remarks helped symbolize the intellectual disarray of the socialist movement.

The revolutionary changes of 1989-90 in Eastern Europe, and their echoes on other continents, have helped provoke the speculation about the bankruptcy of socialism. In more and more Eastern European countries, freely elected legislatures are initiating economic reforms based on free-market principles. The scope of this development dawned on me last fall while I participated in a Christian-Marxist dialogue in Washington, D.C., with visitors from Hungary, Yugoslavia and East Germany. Most of the Eastern Europeans were ostensibly Marxist, but it quickly became evident that they were distancing themselves from previous ideological commitments. In an effort to draw their views out further, I asked whether we were likely to see something like the "socialism with a human face" to which the 1968 Czech reform movement had aspired. "It is already too late for that," one of them replied. The movement toward capitalism would go much further. Others agreed.

In the West, Reaganites and Thatcherites—whether old conservatives or neoconservatives—think they are entitled to dance a bit on the grave of socialism. Economic recovery is in full swing here; socialism is dead there. It only remains to be seen how quickly and how well the whole world can be transformed in accordance with free-market principles.

Nevertheless, we do well to pause for a moment before joining the celebration. Things have a way of reversing themselves, particularly ideological perspectives. We may, ironically, be instructed by the extraordinary comeback of laissez-faire capitalism itself. I must acknowledge that I never expected this. Indeed, when writing a book on comparative economic ideologies in the 1970s I seriously considered eliminating laissez-faire capitalism as wholly obsolete. That would have been quite a mistake. It would be a similar error to eliminate socialism from such a study today.

Though the Eastern European situation will remain in flux for some time, ordinary citizens in East Germany and elsewhere are objecting to the abandonment of such socialist protections as guaranteed employment and medical care. Even in the West, economists are nervous about the vulnerability of the economic recovery of the 1980s and about the economic marginalization of many people. So to the extent that repudiation of socialism entails confidence in the virtues of laissez-faire capitalism, we do well to pause before accepting the new conventional wisdom. We need, at least, to know what we are abandoning and what the consequences of doing so might be.

The history of Christian thought on socialism can shed light on the question. There are. as many varieties of socialism as there are of capitalism, and Christian socialism is among the most difficult to catalog. F. D. Maurice’s mid-19th-century British movement may have been the first to use the name. He adopted it apparently to respond head-on to the critics who considered any movement in behalf of working people to be socialist. Some (though not all) of the leaders of the American Social Gospel movement were socialists—including W. D. P. Bliss, George D. Herron and Walter Rauschenbusch. In Europe, religious socialists Christoph Blumhardt and Leonhard Ragaz influenced Karl Barth and Paul Tillich. Tillich’s interwar "religious socialism" is particularly noteworthy. Today a number of liberation, black and feminist theologians are socialists.

No precise economic conception holds these various forms of Christian socialism together. Maurice aimed to engage the "unsocial Christians and the unchristian Socialists." A measure of his success is the recognition his movement gained in The Communist Manifesto, in which Marx and Engels announce that "Christian Socialism is but the holy water with which the priest consecrates the heart-burnings of the aristocrat." Marx and Engels would, no doubt, have rendered the same judgment on the Social Gospel socialists’ vague formulations. Tillich’s religious socialism, which took class struggle more seriously, was also more precise in its criticism of capitalism—though he also accepted a limited place for a regulated free-market mechanism. The liberation theologians also vary in the degree of their economic precision, though a number of their leaders have been substantially influenced by variants of Marxism.

Taken as a whole, the legacy of Christian socialism may appear too ambiguous to be useful, especially in what appears to be a postsocialist world. But a consensus among Christian socialists endures in three emphases. First, they have all cared about socially and economically marginalized people. The phrase "preferential option for the poor" is the recent invention of the Latin Americans, but the idea is characteristic of all Christian socialisms. They believe that Christians have a special responsibility to those who have been excluded from decision-making in the economic sphere. Second, they all have criticized the notion of the "invisible hand"—that the unrestrained market can be trusted to care best for the public good and the well-being of the poor. Third, they have affirmed the collective responsibility of society to deal with economic problems. Human life in society is not simply the intersection of producing, consuming, trading and competing individuals. Life is more communal than that. People can work together to provide for the common good.

The fact that the Christian socialist vision has generally been theologically well grounded may have contributed to its ideological vagueness—for all ideological commitments are relativized by the element of religious transcendence. The idea of transcendence has also influenced the democratic political commitments of most Christian socialists. Christian socialist formulations of economic norms have had to be provisional and pragmatic, but their pragmatism has usually been informed by human caring and by commitments to unity and justice within the community.

Obviously, the collapse of Eastern European socialism—if indeed it is collapsing—cannot be taken as a judgment upon Christian socialism. That collapse is, if anything, precisely what many Christian socialists would have wanted and expected. The Christian socialist vision was not of an atheistic, paternalistic, totalitarian state that does not uphold the creative dignity of every person as an accepted member of the community. Christian socialists have generally understood that there cannot be genuine community without freedom, just as there can be no genuine community without transcendent responsibility.

The ultimate irony could be that the "last socialists" to remain in Eastern Europe and the U.S.S.R. might be Christians. Conceivably, the only socialism that could work would be that which develops in a society deeply bonded by religious values. By that standard, Marxist-Leninist "scientific socialism," whatever its past usefulness as a vehicle for maintaining totalitarian power, could not endure.

But what about the economic consequences of Christian socialism? Though capitalism now appears to be more productive, Christian socialists would remind us that an economy exists for more than production. Economics must be the servant of the good community, not its master. The market principle can be incorporated within socialism (as the socialist economists Oskar Lange and Ota Sik noted years ago) if its subordinate role is maintained. But even the best gross national product cannot compensate for social demoralization and the exclusion of the poor from economic benefits.

These emphases prevent a facile dismissal of the recurring Christian socialist criticism of bourgeois civilization. Unrestrained laissez-faire capitalism has predictably yielded a class-divided society with vast gulfs between rich and poor. Recent figures on the growing gap between rich and poor in America offer disquieting confirmation of this point. In such a society, the market mechanism (or "discipline") has also tended to reward unethical attempts to secure competitive advantage. It has overemphasized materialistic values and subordinated public goods to private consumption. It has thus demoralized the people, rich and poor alike, and disintegrated the community. It is no accident that we in the West face the social breakdowns represented by drug abuse, murder, unethical business practices, family breakups and homelessness. Such pathologies bespeak self-centeredness and the loss of common values and purposes.

Some argue that only capitalism harnesses humanity’s inherent greed to social purposes in such a way that one advances one’s own desires by serving others. Thus, economist Walter E. Williams argues that "to get along with and serve one another doesn’t require caring about each other." Williams illustrates his point forcefully:

Take Texas ranchers who trek through the snow and blizzards each winter herding cattle just so we in Cincinnati, New York, or Detroit will have beef. Does anybody think they make these sacrifices because they care about you and me? I suspect they don’t give a damn about us; they only care about themselves. But, in the process of caring about themselves (earning money), they provide for us. I shudder to think how much beef would get to market if it depended only on love and human kindness [Frazer Forum, March 1990].

But the Christian socialists would remind us that a system that harnesses greed this way also has great power to destroy. Recalling the Wall Street and the savings and loan scandals of the 1980s, they might also question its economic credentials. It seems that even capitalism cannot be made to function in the human interest without a little love and human kindness. Can any system allow us to put our moral sensitivities on hold and automatically confer needed benefits?

The question remains, however, whether any form of socialism can be made to work economically. I have avoided designating myself a socialist, largely because that term is so often taken to mean monolithic public ownership and operation of the means of production. I am not persuaded that government on a large scale can be sensitive enough to human freedom, creativity and needs to justify a public monopoly over economic institutions. Many self-styled Christian or religious socialists express the same concern. This may, finally, come down to a question of agreeing upon labels. But it also suggests a possible point of convergence between Christian socialists and those who prefer to call themselves capitalists in the mixed-economy or social-welfare capitalist sense.

Clearly, such a convergence requires overall public accountability of whatever market institutions are desired, in a society where government is itself democratically responsible. The market system should serve the community, not vice versa. Government has a redistributive responsibility, ensuring that class differences do not become too great and protecting the more vulnerable members of the community. Government is also responsible for the creation of many of the public goods that serve the community.

One of my concerns about capitalist triumphalism is that in rejecting socialist totalitarianism people may reject useful public enterprises of various kinds. By arguing that socialism doesn’t work, free-market ideologues may enforce the misguided notion that no publicly owned and operated venture can possibly succeed.

If an all-encompassing socialism has proved too cumbersome, inefficient and corruptible, that does not mean that disaggregated forms of socialism are unworkable. There is a long history of successful governmental ownership and operation of enterprises delivering goods and services. Our own country pioneered the development of the vast socialistic enterprise of public education from kindergarten through college. In Britain the national health service is sufficiently successful that even the deeply capitalistic Thatcher government could not muster enough support to privatize it. (Meanwhile, our own system of health care delivery is in crisis.)

Public institutions are not necessarily corrupt or inefficient. That ideological assertion is outrageously unfair to the dedicated teachers, public health nurses and doctors, foresters, highway engineers and other public servants who work creatively, competently and with devotion to the common good. We have a Christian responsibility to pray for such public servants and help in whatever way we can to sustain them in their calling.

Thus, it is premature to dismiss Christian socialism. Its critique of the excesses and brutalities and idolatries of the free market still needs to be heard. Its reminder that human beings can work together for the common good is still compelling. Its insistence that no economic system is good enough to be workable without reference to moral values remains true. Its endorsement of specific ventures in "disaggregated socialism" will continue to merit serious debate.