Communism and Religion--Part 2: Christianity

Early Christian Communalism and Real Communism

by Bob Avakian

Revolutionary Worker #912, June 22, 1997

As a way of illustrating some of the basic points of dialectical materialism, but also as a way of examining important aspects of religion and particularly Christianity, we can examine what has been described as the "communism" of the early Christians. In "Socialism: Utopian and Scientific," Engels draws a certain analogy between the sort of utopian communalism of some of the early Christian communities and the modern-day communist movement, the scientific communist movement representing the proletariat in this era and its world historic transformation of society. Engels noted both certain similarities and certain contrasts. And it is worthwhile getting into this a little deeper.

Today, from a different standpoint, in trying to show how the Bible is the basis for fighting oppression and acting on behalf of the poor as well as overcoming war and other evils in human society, certain "liberation theology" advocates will quote things, for example, from the book of "Acts" in the New Testament of the Christian Bible. In fact, in the book of "Acts" you actually find the phrase "from each according to his ability, to each according to his needs"--it is actually right in this book in the New Testament. And "Acts" describes how the early Christian community practiced this communal sharing, before Christianity became institutionalized and elevated to the level of the official religion of the Roman Empire--before the Christian religion not only became an official religion, but also before the various different sects and trends within Christianity developed and engaged in rivalry with each other and mutual slaughter over such things as trying to define the nature of the Trinity (which they all have found impossible). In any case, back in the early Christian communities, as described in the book of "Acts," when people joined this community they would bring whatever wealth they had individually acquired and they would put it into the common holding and then it would be distributed according to the needs of different individuals in that community.

So, on the one hand, you had this method of distribution which was in a certain sense "communal" or "communistic," you might say. At the same time, if you look into it further, you see that in the letters (the epistles) of Paul in the Bible (and this is something often pointed to by the "liberation theologists"), there are statements to this effect: In the Christian community there are no masters and slaves, there are no men or women, and so on--in other words there are only Christians.

But this didn't mean that people will no longer be slaves and other people will no longer be masters. It simply meant that all these people, be they master or slave, man or woman, were equal--equal from the standpoint of the Christian religion--that is, they all had an equal chance to go to heaven and find equality in another world. And Paul in his letters is very specific in telling slaves to be obedient to their masters--even masters who are harsh and cruel towards them. It was not in this world--and it was not by resisting, overthrowing, or even running away from, conditions of enslavement in this world--that the slaves would find emancipation, or salvation. That would happen only after they left this world--supposedly for some other ideal world with god, in heaven. The "communalism," or "communistic distribution," of these early Christians was founded upon very unequal social relations and ultimately was founded in an exploitative production system in which these Christians were enmeshed as part of the larger society, whether they were in Rome or other parts of the world where Christianity first spread, largely in what is often called the Middle East and North Africa today.

A Useful Religion for Rulers

This is an illustration, actually, of a basic point of Marxism--these limitations of the early Christian "communistic" spirit and practice illustrate a fundamental point of Marxist political economy. Marx makes the point, and all of Marxism insists on the point, that ultimately the system of production is principal and decisive in relation to the system of distribution. The system of distribution will ultimately be determined by and correspond to the system of production. And ultimately any system of distribution which does not correspond to the underlying production system--to the mode of production and its production relations--will not be viable. It will ultimately have to be transformed to be in accordance with the underlying production relations and system of accumulation. In effect, the early Christians tried to have a communal or communistic distribution system among themselves while leaving intact the larger production relations that ultimately shaped social relations in their own communities and in the larger societies in which their members were embedded and took part.

So this Christian "communalism" was bound to fall apart--this contradiction was bound to explode--to put it simply, this early "communistic" thing could not be maintained. There was not the material basis in the mode of production at the time, even within the Christian community, to maintain any kind of communistic system of distribution. And there was definitely not the basis to spread this throughout society as a whole.

In fact, as the Christian religion spread and began to take in more wealthy members of the propertied classes, this "from each according to his ability, to each according to his need" principle kind of got watered down and eliminated. The class relations of the larger society became reproduced within the Christian community itself with the establishment of a whole hierarchy in the Christian community, with the Bishops and all the structure of the Church. And then, of course, in the 4th century the Roman Emperor Constantine adopted Christianity as his official religion and soon it became enshrined and embedded in the superstructure as the official religion of the Roman Empire.

At a crucial point in his rise to power, Constantine claimed that, as he was about to engage in a decisive battle against his rivals for rule of the Roman Empire, he saw the sign of the cross in the sky and then he went on to win the battle. And this, he said, showed him that Christianity was the true religion. In reality, what he learned was that Christianity was very useful to him. And, more than that (for if it were just useful to him it would not have lasted), it corresponded to changes that were going on within the Roman Empire, and to the needs of the ruling class of the Roman Empire at that time, and it thus became the official religion of the Roman Empire.

It became the official religion not because Constantine saw the sign of the cross in the sky. Nobody knows what he was drinking or smoking, and that's not even the point--he might have been in a trance, he actually might have seen the sign of the Cross in a trance, but that's not what's important and decisive. The essential point is that Christianity corresponded to the needs and interests of the Roman Empire and its ruling class at that time. It's not theoretically the only religion which could have corresponded to those needs and interests, but it's the one that won out, so to speak, in society and in the superstructure. It was the one that, for a number of reasons, was adopted, and adapted to conform to the interests of the ruling class in that empire. And it has continued--with necessary "adjustments" from one era to another--to be the religion that has best served the interests of the ruling classes of Europe and some other places where the Roman Empire and succeeding European empires spread historically, as well as some other areas where Christianity became dominant.

Radical Ruptures

This is an illustration of two things. One, a basic principle of dialectical materialism concerning the relation between the economic base and the superstructure of society and, within the economic base, the relation between the production system and the system of distribution, in which the production system is decisive. And, two, the nature and limitations of the "communist" distribution system and the corresponding ideals of early Christianity, and the qualitative, radical difference between that early "Christian communalism" and the communism that will be brought into being in the world today through the revolutionary struggle of the proletariat to uproot the economic and social basis for all relations of exploitation and oppression.

In other words, this is another illustration of the two radical ruptures that Marx and Engels speak of in the "Communist Manifesto": the radical rupture with traditional property relations--and the underlying production relations that these property relations are based on--and the radical rupture with traditional ideas. It is an illustration of what these radical ruptures represent and why they are necessary. And it is an illustration of why "liberation theology" and other attempts to use the Christian Bible and religion as the basis for justice, for the fight against oppression and to uphold the interests of the poor, cannot stand up--why this cannot meet the needs of the masses of oppressed, cannot lead to uprooting oppression.

This is why Engels, when he made this analogy between the communist movement of this era and the early Christian movement, made clear that this was a limited analogy. Engels emphasized the fundamental point that not only have various relations of class division and exploitation, including bourgeois relations, become completely unnecessary, but more than that they have become a direct and definite hindrance to the further development and emancipation of society and of the people. It's not simply that they're unnecessary in some abstract sense, but materially and socially these exploitative relations have become a direct hindrance to the further development and emancipation of society and the people. This again illustrates the necessity and importance of those two radical ruptures--with traditional property relations and with traditional ideas.


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