Tillich’s Social Thought: New Perspectives

by Franklin Sherman

Dr. Sherman is professor of Christian ethics and director of graduate studies at the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago.

This article appeared in the Christian Century, February 25, 1976, pp. 168-172. Copyright by The Christian Century Foundation; used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at www.christiancentury.org. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted and Winnie Brock.


Much of what Paul Tillich has to say is pertinent to any effort to relate Christian theology and ethics to the social problems of our times and embraced a form of socialism. But he showed a full appreciation of the danger, as seen in the Soviet example, of turning socialism into a form of totalitarianism.

It will no doubt surprise many to learn that the book Paul Tillich regarded as perhaps his most significant is one that is still practically unknown in this country, since it is only now being translated into English. Die sozialistische Entscheidung ("The Socialist Decision") was published in 1933, only a few months before Tillich was dismissed from his university professorship and emigrated to the United States.

We have Tillich’s judgment of the book on the authority of James Luther Adams, who wrote to me in November 1971, just after he had recruited me to do the translation: "Did I tell you? One time when I was praising this book, Tillich said that every line was discussed with the Kairos Circle, and he concluded by saying, ‘If I am proud of anything I have written, this is the one.’"

An Indebtedness to Marx

A volume of some 200 pages, The Socialist Decision (as it will be titled also in translation) is Tillich’s longest connected work dealing with social questions. It represents the culmination of his 15 years of identification with the "religious socialist" movement in Germany, dating back to the time just after World War I when he was called on the carpet by the synodical consistory in Berlin to account for his appearance as a lecturer at a meeting of the Independent Social Democratic Party -- a party which, from the synod’s standpoint, had added to the injury of being socialist the insult of having been antiwar as well.

In his celebrated "Answer to an Inquiry of the Protestant Consistory of Brandenburg" (1919), the 33-year-old pastor made it clear that he believed a new age in Western history was dawning, and that this age would be, in some sense, socialist. This development, he urged, should be welcomed rather than resisted by the churches, since there is a natural affinity between socialism and the Christian ethic.

"The spirit of Christian love," Tillich wrote,

accuses a social order which consciously and in principle is built upon economic and political egoism, and it demands a new order in which the feeling of community is the foundation of the social structure. It accuses the deliberate egoism of an economy . . . in which each is the enemy of the other, because his advantage is conditioned by the disadvantage or ruin of the other, and it demands an economy of solidarity of all, and of joy in work rather than in profit.

Tillich’s moral passion perhaps never again came through quite so clearly as in that early document (coauthored with his friend Carl Richard Wegener). Meanwhile, however, his analysis of the social situation and his constructive social thought became much more sophisticated during the years he participated in the discussions of the Kairos Circle with his friends and colleagues Eduard Heimann, Adolf Lowe and others. Throughout, they were explicitly oriented to Marxism, seeking to evaluate its significance as a tool of analysis and a guide to praxis. In fact, these discussions can be regarded as an early form of the Christian-Marxist dialogue, even though the dialogue, for the most part, was internalized within these thinkers rather than being represented by "Christians" on the one side and "Marxists" on the other. Those pursuing the same concerns today, as in the growing movement of "Christians for Socialism" in Latin America and elsewhere, will find in the early Tillich a valuable ally and mentor when they become more familiar with this aspect of his thought.

The Socialist Decision is also of interest, however, to those not especially oriented toward Marxism, since much of what Tillich has to say is pertinent to any effort to relate Christian theology and ethics to the social problems of our times. We know that Tillich himself later modulated his use of Marxist categories, although his 1948 essay in The Christian Century, "How Much Truth Is There in Karl Marx?" (September 8, 1948, p. 906), speaks eloquently of his continuing indebtedness to that thinker.

The book is scheduled for publication by Harper & Row in 1977, as part of the series that includes the volumes of Tillich’s essays titled What Is Religion? and Political Expectations Roy J. Enquist, now on leave from Texas Lutheran College to teach at a seminary in South Africa, assisted me with the translation, and the volume will carry an introduction by John M. Stumme of St. Olaf College, who made an intensive study of this book and its milieu as part of his doctoral studies at Union Theological Seminary, New York, and at the Free University of Berlin.

The Bourgeois Society

The book is typically "Tillichian" in the vastness of the historical panorama it encompasses and in the architectonic character of the argument. It reminds one in this respect of Tillich’s 1945 essay, "The World Situation" (reprinted, in 1965 by Fortress), which indeed can be seen as a lineal descendant of The Socialist Decision. The story of socialism is set against the backdrop of the rise of "bourgeois society" out of the medieval context, with its associated movements of rationalism, liberalism and of course capitalism, together with the countertrends to these developments.

Typical also is the way in which Tillich probes beneath the social and political level to ground his argument in ontology; i.e., in an analysis of the structure of being -- in this case, human being. This he does in the introductory section titled "The Two Roots of Political Thought" -- the one part of the volume that is already known in English, having appeared as a chapter in The Interpretation of History in 1936.

Tillich distinguishes between two aspects of human nature: being and consciousness (Sein and Bewusstsein). The play on words in the German could perhaps be caught by rendering these terms as "being" and "being aware." On the one hand, we are what we are; on the other hand, we are aware of what we are, and are challenged to become what we may become. On the one hand, we are tied to the "origin"; on the other hand, we face the "unconditional demand." The former is the question of the "Whence?" and the latter the question of the ‘"Whither?" of human life.

In the introduction, Tillich only hints at the political correlations of these aspects of human being; they are developed in extenso in three main sections: Part One, "Political Romanticism"; Part Two, "The Principle of Bourgeois Society and the Inner Conflict of Socialism"; and Part Three, Tillich’s constructive theory of socialism. Actually these are taken up out of historical order, and Tillich might well have treated bourgeois society or the "bourgeois principle" first.

The rendering of the term "bourgeois" is a matter of some difficulty, since the word is not used in common speech, nor is it normally a part even of scholarly discourse in English-speaking circles, except in Marxist literature. It of course refers to the class of traders, entrepreneurs and, in general, "solid citizens" (Bürger). In seeking for equivalents, I have often thought that the phrase "bourgeois morality" could simply be rendered "middle-class morality," that "bourgeois society" is close to what has been called by others "a business civilization," and that the "bourgeois mentality" has many features of what more recently has been identified as the white Anglo-Saxon Protestant (WASP) outlook.

Tillich’s interpretation of the "bourgeois principle" -- i.e., of the basic assumption and the driving power of bourgeois society -- can perhaps be summarized as follows: "Everything is analyzable, everything is manipulable." It involves a far-reaching, dehumanization, or Verdinglichung (literally, "thingification") of human ‘life. "Goal-setting takes the place of concern for being, the creation of tools replaces the contemplation of intrinsic values." Everything is to be made subject to human reason; but in the process, human beings themselves become objects.

In bourgeois society, the "myth of origin" is broken, and all ties to the origin -- in the double sense of the past and the depth dimension -- are broken. These include cultural traditions, loyalties to family, nation, place or social group, the sense of the transcendent (the incalculable) -- all are brought out in the pitiless light of rationality. The life-feeling of bourgeois society is that of a self-sufficient finitude, but eventually a sense of emptiness ensues (cf. Tillich’s later phrase "a self-emptying autonomy"). The crisis reaches its climax when the belief in the automatic harmony which sustained bourgeois society in its laissez-faire approach to economics is shown to be futile by the malfunctioning of modern capitalism.

‘Political Romanticism’

It is in the face of these problems that the countermovement arises that Tillich calls "political romanticism." The term is apt, since this movement shares many features with the romanticism of literature and philosophy -- the stress on feeling rather than rationality, on individuality (e.g., the individual nation) rather than universality, on particularity (e.g., of blood and soil) rather than abstraction. To this is added a distrust of the electoral process and a preference for hierarchy or elitism over egalitarianism.

Tillich distinguishes two forms of political romanticism. The conservative form, which is the more innocent, consists in the effort of Prussian Junkers and others to defend such of their tradition and/or possessions as had not yet fallen prey to bourgeois domination. It is "the revolutionary form of political romanticism" that poses the insidious threat. This phrase, in fact, functions in Tillich’s book as a code name for Nazism.

The attitude toward Nazism expressed in The Socialist Decision, has a strange ambiguity -- partly attributable, no doubt, to the fact (little remembered today) that Nazism originally presented itself as a form of socialism. The full name of the party was "National Socialist German Workers’ Party." It had a populist character; it was supposed to represent true (nationalistic) socialism over against false (internationalistic; i.e., Marxist) socialism. Hitler himself once commented: "Our Socialism goes far deeper. . . . Why need we trouble to socialize banks and factories? We socialize human beings." Gemeinnutz vor Eigennutz, "the general good before the individual good," was a Nazi slogan.

Apparently Tillich was among those who held some hope, however faint, that a genuinely socialist element in the movement could be salvaged, and even made to predominate. Of course he utterly rejected Nazi anti-Semitism -- its authoritarianism, its brutality, its hypernationalism, its appeal to primitive mythology -- and he fully recognized Adolf Hitler for the demonic figure that he was. But there were other leaders, and Hitler had not yet at that time consolidated all power into his hands. (It was during the months immediately following the publication of The Socialist Decision that Hitler proceeded to do just that; and it was only a year later that Gregor Strasser, generally considered the leader of the more authentically socialist wing of the party, together with all those who offered any challenge to Hitler’s absolute leadership, was murdered in the Great Purge of June 30, 1934.)

Sympathy for the ‘Little People’

This interpretation of Tillich’s attitude toward National Socialism is partly derived from reading between the lines," and I hope that it is not unfair to him. What is clear is that his whole analysis was such as to create sympathy for the "little people" (workers as well as members of the lower-middle class) who were joining the Nazi movement. They were in flight from the depersonalization of bourgeois society, from unemployment, from status anxiety, from starvation of the symbolic and emotional dimension of existence. They longed to return to "mother and father," to the security of the womb and of an authoritarian demand.

Tillich presented socialism to them -- a renewed and deepened form of socialism, "religious" socialism -- as the fulfillment of their genuine aspirations. Bourgeois society provided the thesis, political romanticism the antithesis, and socialism the synthesis, sublating and "saving" what was legitimate in the two preceding movements. (Again, these are terms that I am imposing on the argument; but Tillich’s thought does move along these Hegelian lines.)

The possibility of such a synthesis was already adumbrated in Tillich’s anthropological analysis in the introduction. If human nature has the two aspects of "being" and "consciousness" (being and being aware), political romanticism corresponds more to the former element, socialism to the latter. As Tillich says in the introduction, "The consciousness oriented to the myth of origin is the root of all conservative and romantic thought in politics," while "the breaking of the myth of origin by the unconditional demand is the root of liberal, democratic, and socialist thought in politics." But these two elements do not have a merely side-by-side relationship. Being is fulfilled in consciousness, and that which is pointed to by the question "Whither?" is the consummation of that which was intended by the origin (the "Whence?"). "The demand that man experiences is unconditional, but it is not alien to him. . . . It affects him only because it places before him, in the form of a demand, his own essence." Or, as Tillich might have said, eschatology corresponds to protology. God is Alpha and Omega.

Socialism and Expectation

Tillich, then, was seeking for a socialism founded on something deeper than the diminished and overrationalized view of humanity current in bourgeois society. He saw the conflict in contemporary socialism and its immobility in the face of the crises that confronted it -- e.g., its inability to make decisive use of the means of power for its own protection and that of Weimar democracy as such -- as due to its overdependence on bourgeois presuppositions. In short, it needed a good strong dose of realism, but a "believing" realism, filled with courage to strike out for the new in history.

In striving for this deepening of socialism’s anthropological foundations, Tillich found an ally in the early Marx, whose "Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts of 1844" had just been discovered and published by J. P. Mayer, and Siegfried Landshut, two contributors to the religious socialist journal coedited by Tillich, the Neue Blätter für den Sozialismus. Here was a new picture of Marx the humanist, Marx the prophet, as contrasted to the later Marx with his more strictly economic focus. Tillich resists the tendency to play the one off against the other, however; the "real Marx", he insists, is "Marx in the context of his development."

The basic concept of socialism, for Tillich -- or, to use his own terms, its central "symbol" -- is expectation. It is in expounding the meaning of this symbol that Tillich, in this book, so clearly anticipates the "theology of hope" that was to develop three decades later. "Expectation" signifies life lived under the demand and promise of a greater justice, a greater measure of fulfillment for all beings. It posits the possibility of the radically new in history -- though not the absolutely new, since what is coming develops out of what is, even if by way of contradiction. It looks to a particular group, the proletariat -- that group which most directly experiences the contradictions of the present in its own "body," as it were -- as the bearer of the future.

The symbol of expectation is closely linked to the concept of the kairos, which in turn is rooted in the prophetic notion of the directionality of history and the New Testament concept of the "fullness of time." There come moments in history (and these moments may be of considerable duration; the whole Weimar period was, in a sense, such a "moment") that are pregnant with possibilities. Not all things are possible -- to think so would be utopian, in the wrong sense -- but some things are, and the trick is to learn just what these are, to master the art of "discerning the signs of the times" (Reinhold Niebuhr). Socialism, Tillich emphasizes, is not merely a moralistic demand floating above the plane of history; it is that toward which history itself, at this moment, is pointing. "The demand cannot move life if life itself is not moving in the direction of that which is demanded."

We are obviously close here to the Hegelian and Marxian notion of the historical dialectic, as well as, theologically, to the concept of providence. Tillich’s detailed discussion in this connection of the powers and limitations of human action foreshadows his later discussion, in the Systematic Theology, of the "freedom and destiny" polarity. The two factors are not mutually exclusive; on the contrary, they presuppose and interpenetrate one another.

Tillich stresses most strongly the contributions of Jewish prophetism, and of Judaism as a whole, to this way of thinking. One feels that he is triply underlining this dimension in the face of the anti-Semitism of the time. It was the Hebrew prophets who first made the break with the myth of origin, and socialism itself can be defined as "prophetism on the soil of an autonomous, self-sufficient world." Its substance is religious, even though its form is secular.

Building a New Social Order

Having laid this foundation, Tillich then goes on to set out the implications of the socialist principle for six major aspects of the problem of building a new social order. Each of the pair of concepts mentioned represents an antinomy which had been developed in Tillich’s analysis of the inner conflict in socialism due to its dependence on bourgeois presuppositions, and which is now resolved through a better grasp of the socialist principle.

Origin and Goal in the Expectation of the Future. Socialism’s goal of a classless society does not mean a society without roots, without loyalties, traditions, faith. Nor does it imply that historical development will come to an end; socialism points beyond itself.

Being and Consciousness in the Picture of Humanity. Socialism replaces bourgeois society’s objectified, rationalistic view of humanity with a new appreciation of the human being in terms of a spiritual and vital "center," lying beneath the level of the conscious mind.

Power and Justice in the Structuring of Society. The use of power, including its use by a leadership group, is not rejected (the state is not expected to "wither away"), but power is based on consent and directed toward the establishment of justice. (The discussion here anticipates Tillich’s Love, Power, and Justice.)

Symbol and Concept in the Development of Culture. Socialism must give up its negative attitude toward religion and, rather, attempt to strengthen the prophetic over against the priestly element in the churches. It must seek a new language, combining sacred and secular symbolism. In education, it must frankly aim at "induction" into the socialist view of life.

Eros and Purpose in the Life of the Community. Socialism must rescue the idea of the nation from its perversion by political romanticism, learning to affirm the nation even more deeply, yet hold it under the demand of justice, both at home and abroad. Likewise socialism should continue to support the women’s movement, and guard against any return to male domination.

Nature and Planning in the Economic Order. The achievement of economic rationality is not to be left to the laws of the market, but is to be made a deliberate goal. Technology will serve actual needs, not the creation of artificial needs. The meaning of work will be restored through a new vision of its purpose and new structures of work relationships. As to the traditional socialist tenet concerning nationalization of the means of production, Tillich maintains that "positions of economic power held by private enterprise must be placed in the hands of society as a whole. . . . These positions of power include the landed estates, heavy industry, major manufacturing concerns, banking, and foreign trade." At the same time, "in those forms of production that do not have a dominant position in society, a free economy can be preserved, and thus the bureaucratization of the whole economy can be avoided."

‘Socialism with a Human Face’

It is evident that Tillich already had reached the starting point from which he could move, with Niebuhr, Bennett and others, to the advocacy of a "mixed economy" in the United States. Tillich already showed a full appreciation of the danger, as seen in the Soviet example, of turning socialism into a form of totalitarianism. True, he does not lay as much stress on the importance of maintaining a plurality of political parties, freedom of speech and of the press, etc., as democratic socialists would wish to do today; but he did not yet know as many instances as we do of the ease with which these things may be snuffed out.

In what sense is Tillich’s socialism "religious"? He himself gives an answer when he writes: "Socialism is religious if religion means living out of the roots of human being." Tillich’s position might be called -- to coin a term analogous to "depth psychology" -- a "depth socialism." But perhaps the best name for it, and one with which Tillich himself might have been quite happy, is the phrase used by Alexander Dubcek and the heroic Czech reformers of 1968: "Socialism with a human face."