THE Global Justice Movement Website

THE Global Justice Movement Website
This is the "Global Justice Movement" (dot org) we refer to in the title of this blog.

Wednesday, April 1, 2020

Was Jesus the First Socialist?

Quick answer: no.  The idea — in those terms — first appeared in the early nineteenth century, which (as we saw in the previous posting on this subject) was when socialists were trying to garner as many “implied ethical endorsements” as they could to sell their system.  It’s an interesting story.

Dr. Julian Strube
A while back while researching the origins of modern socialism and its relation to Catholic social teaching we came across the work of Dr. Julian Strube of Heidelberg University — the Heidelberg in Baden-Württemberg, not Ohio.  As someone who has devoted his entire academic career to studying the link between socialism and religion, Professor Strube speaks with authority on a subject that is finally coming into its own after nearly two centuries of neglect.
That is the fixed belief that socialism is primarily economic in nature, and is merely one more proposed application of fundamental principles.  It should therefore be judged solely on whether it performs as promised . . . after making allowances for the evil people in Church, State, and Family who interfere with putting socialism into practice, and the just plain bad luck that seems to happen to socialist endeavors with surprising regularity.
To this belief, Dr. Strube has given a very polite, yet very learned, response that boils down to, “Nonsense.”  Of course, being a German Professor — the real thing — he takes several volumes and a plethora of published articles to say so, but that’s the gist.  As he has explained (and given reams of evidence to support), early socialists were obsessed with the idea that Christianity had failed, and that in varying degrees their job was to reform, replace, or abolish the old “Christian” order and traditional institutions of Church, State, and Family, and replace them with a single, monolithic entity that took the place of all three.
Aren't those modern theologians clever? And so witty!
Depending on the group being addressed, socialism was “the Democratic Religion,” “New Christianity,” “Neo-Catholicism,” or what have you.  The goal was the establishment and maintenance of “the Kingdom of God on Earth.”  A common theme was that Christianity had become corrupt, especially through the influence of priests and kings, and had hidden or abolished the real message of Jesus, Who just happened to agree with whatever socialist was speaking or writing.
Later developments posited that Jesus was not only the first socialist, He was not actually the God-Man; that was an invention of the priests and politicians.  He was just an extraordinary human being with special powers.  As Biblical scholarship advanced, it was found that the extraordinary things Jesus did were invented by the disciples to commemorate someone they really liked.  Even later, it was discovered by advanced, modernist theologians that Jesus never even existed.
The problem was that evidence for these claims was somewhat limited.  Okay, it was non-existent, based on what the expert(s) in question wanted to believe should have happened.  One of the earliest socialists to assert that Jesus was the first socialist was Étienne Cabet, founder of “Icarian socialism” that attempted to remove all religion from society while at the same time maintaining “freedom of religion.”
Étienne Cabet
Cabet’s Le Vrai Christianisme Suivant Jesus-Christ, “a curious little volume of over six hundred very small pages” (Albert Shaw, Ph.D., Icaria: A Chapter in the History of Communism.  New York: G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1884, 18-19), laid out his case for the claim that Jesus was the first socialist.  It was a heavily fictionalized account of the life of the early Christians juxtaposed with Cabet’s accounts of early nineteenth century religious oppression of socialists by priests, political oppression of socialists by kings, and economic oppression of socialists by capitalists.
This had been preceded by Cabet’s most famous work, Voyage en Icarie, mostly in the form of a utopian romance describing a perfect world.  This had been created by one Icar who freed his people from being oppressed by — you guessed it — priests, politicians, and plutocrats.
Not that Cabet was actively hostile to religion.  As noted, he preached toleration for all faiths.  He just also made a point of insisting that he knew they were all false (especially Christianity), but that people were free to believe it if they were so wrong-headed as to do so.
"Good job, God, for making me better than anyone else!"
This, in a sense, is far more damaging than hostility or persecution.  Amused contempt has lured more people away from organized religion than anything else, whether it’s the unbeliever sneering, or the religious adherent convinced that his faith is so much stronger and better than that of anyone else: “O God, I give thee thanks that I am not as the rest of men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, as also is this publican.  I fast twice in a week:  I give tithes of all that I possess.”  (Luke 18:11-12)
Cabet’s achievement — or so he thought — was to remove the specifically religious aspect from socialism and to shift the socialist focus from trying to reform or replace religion, to trying to reform or replace what became known as capitalism (the socialist Louis Blanc seems to have been the first one to refer to “capitalism” in 1850).  Cabet’s analysis and rhetoric inspired Karl Marx and the development of Marx’s “scientific socialism” that he and Engels decided to call communism.
The point of all this is to reemphasize the thing that started the postings on this subject: that while the rise of capitalism contributed to the social and economic situation that led to the rise of socialism, socialism was first proposed as a replacement for traditional forms of Christianity.  As will be seen in the next posting on this subject, it was only later that capitalism became the primary target.