Religion and Socialism

By Smyth, Frederic Hastings | Monthly Review, February 1989 | Go to article overview

Religion and Socialism


Smyth, Frederic Hastings, Monthly Review


Merely to write the above title is to fly in the face of the religious concepts of a great many people. Because, in the minds of many who count themselves as "religious," only that which is included in the area of a "spiritual" relationship with God, which concerns man's eternal, as distinct from his temporal, destiny, and which is therefore indifferent to human judgments (or tastes) in the political and economic ordering of this present life on earth, can be properly allotted to the domain of religion. It is obvious, therefore, that before we proceed we must make clear what we mean by "religion."

In what follows, the religion of which we speak will be that which derives from the Hebrew-Christian tradition. And this religion has from the beginning invariably concerned itself with the affairs of this life. Judeo-Christian religion is this-worldly rather than next-worldly.

The ancient Jewish community of Palestine, highly conscious of its social unity in a kinsh"brotherhood," lived under a code of communal law full of economic legislation related religiously to the will of the God of Israel. The Book of Deuteronomy, for example, condemns, under high religious sanction, the exaction of interest on loans of either money or goods; it forbids the grabbing of a neighbor's land by shifting the markings of a drawn boundary; it confirms an older law freeing slaves after a fixed period of service; it makes elaborate provision for periodical redistribution of lands in such wise as to prevent the growth of a permanent landed aristocracy and the correlative formation of a dispossessed tenantry or sharecropper class. All such religious laws are intended to legislate, within the political and economic life of this world, a set of human relationships proper to men living in a social unity which can, with correctness and meaningfulness, be described as a "brotherhood." They are founded upon the clearly seen truth that men can be spiritually "brotherly" only within a community so organized and governed that "brotherliness" 'in material relationships is enforced by the authority of constitutional community law. And this law, in all its carefully detailed prescriptions, is gathered together in its great Summary which inseparably links all love of God to a regard for one's fellow men ("neighbors") equal at least to one's regard for oneself The Founder of Christianity, far from denying this central commandment of the Jewish tradition, confirmed it; but he expanded the obligation to the achievement of human community beyond its historic confines in the Hebrew Nation, to embrace all men of every race and every nation.

Therefore, the religion of thejudeo-Christian tradition is by no means exclusively next-worldly in its immediate emphasis. From earliest Old Testament times, this religion has not hesitated to "meddle" or "tamper," as some people today would put it, with both politics and economics in order that the principles of "brotherhood" may be realized in the basic order of the human social structure. The very kernel of this religion is to aim at the realization of a communally structured way of life such that individualistic self-seeking shall be replaced and dominated by a system of cooperative human relationships.

In other words, in our religious tradition, no moral or ethical principles are ever put forth as if within an environmental vacuum. And stillless, by far, do we ever presuppose that the social structure of man's environment shall make it categorically impossible to put religious principles into everyday practice. On the contrary, when we teach men that they should tell the truth, we presuppose an economic structure such that truth-telling will gain its due social and economic advantage in practical business and community esteem. When we teach men that they ought to give freely of their best ideas and skills for the advantage of their fellows, we presuppose a society so ordered in distributive justice that those making such contributions shall unfailingly have their due share of whatever social amenities and wealth may subsequently accrue. …

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