As we have seen, the breakdown of the old feudal system of the middle ages brought all kinds of conflict with it. The French Revolution was the first all out break with Christendom, and with it came a host of difficulties. Where society had once been viewed in terms of how each part of society fit together to form the whole, under revolutionary ideals, men began being viewed as production hours and in terms of monetary value. This (de)valuation of men was of course done in the name of liberty and freedom, but in reality it created a view of the world that encouraged covetousness, greed, and envy.
From Estate to Class
The French Revolution, you will remember, was largely carried out by (what we would now term) an upper-middle class group of men known as the bourgeoisie. It was a movement by some who were usually wealthy businessmen, motivated by greed, hunger for power, and a disgust for the Christian faith, to have greater impact and say in a kingdom of corrupt royalty. This was the beginning of what moderns would term ‘classes’ of people. These classes are ways of categorizing people based upon their income and wealth. What had once been ‘estates’ (Clergy, Royalty, and everybody else ie. Families) meaning sectors of society that performed specific functions or aids to equip and encourage the health and growth of the whole people, came to be viewed as classes, defining men by their money rather than their gifts.
The word “socialism” came into the English language from the French somewhere around 1820. Finding its roots in Latin, the word refers to companions or neighbors and came to mean a belief in a certain way society should function or the role a civil government should play in society. In some of its earliest formulations, socialism envisioned a ‘utopian’ society, that is, a society that assumes the best about human nature. Socialism dreamed of a world where government was unnecessary, where men and women gave to one another freely as needed, traded, and served one another with complete justice and equality. More importantly, it dreamed of an egalitarian society, a society with no classes, with no inequalities.
These sorts of movements of course have origins. Socialism is no different. With the simultaneous outbreak of revolutionary thought, disrupting societies, questioning all of the glue that had held previous generations together, and the emergence of the industrial revolution, the increase of mass production and the growth of cities, another “class” appeared on the scene: the working class. This working class or “proletariat” was made of those who labored in the mills and factories, whose only assets were their bodies’ ability to work. As the world changed in dramatic ways it faced challenges that essentially boiled down to learning how to get along in new settings. While we must not idealize the medieval feudalism (for it certainly was not perfect), it is at least praiseworthy for its personality. Men made covenants with one another, vowing to provide, defend, protect, and be loyal to one another. This ‘faith’ among men, was a kind of bond that gave some stability to society (crusades and feuding knights notwithstanding). With that bond broken between men, a new kind of faith needed to be forged without which human societies cannot function.
The bourgeoisie, which continued its success, soon had a large working class which filled its needs for production. However, a number of things contributed to growing discontent among the working class. In many places the working environment was difficult, wages were extremely low because of the demand for work, hours were incredibly long, and a host of others. As the bourgeoisie had once banded together in order to redress wrong that they perceived in society, so too some began to see the need for the working class to band together for protection as well. Initially, socialist ideals were suggested and promulgated by members of the bourgeoisie and upper classes. Men and women who saw the sufferings of the workers in factories sought protections and justice for men and women, believing that they ought to be treated with more dignity and respect. But it was not long before these concerns and the hoped for solutions were shared by many within the ranks of the workers. Worker Unions began emerging at this time, and strikes became a symbol of the little man giving the corporate business owners ‘what for’.
Socialism and Scripture
As men began looking for solutions to the dilemmas they found themselves in, few thought to give heed to Scripture. But God’s Word gives instructions for the care of the poor and the working class. “And when ye reap the harvest of your land, thou shalt not make clean riddance of the corners of thy field when thou reapest, neither shalt thou gather any gleaning of thy harvest: thou shalt leave them unto the poor, and to the stranger: I am the LORD your God.” (Lev. 23:22, 19:9-10, Dt. 24:19) “At the end of every third year you shall bring out all the tithe of your produce in that year, and shall deposit it in your town. The Levite, because he has no portion or inheritance among you, and the alien, the orphan and the widow who are in your town, shall come and eat and be satisfied, in order that the Lord your God may bless you in all the work of your hand which you do.” (Dt. 14:28-29) The Old Testament law also has provisions that require the forgiving of debts in certain years, as well as general laws that required the Israelites to treat their workers with dignity and justice, to pay their wages promptly, and not to oppress them in any way. The Proverbs declare that he who gives to the poor lends to the Lord and will be repaid generously. While the New Testament does not give many direct instructions regarding the poor or working class, the general thrust remains the same as the Old Covenant, treat all men as you have been treated. Since you were once slaves (literally and spiritually) and you have been given freedom and salvation, so treat all those around you generously, seeking the blessing of all. In Galatians, Paul recounts that the elders of the Jerusalem council gave their blessing to Paul’s ministry to the gentiles only insisting that his ministry not neglect the care of the poor (2:10).
But these Biblical requirements to care for and provide for the poor do not in any way set aside other clear requirements. The eighth commandment prohibiting stealing, assumes that an owner possesses property. Further, while the early church clearly experienced an abundance of community, which we ought to imitate, it was nevertheless voluntary as indicated by the story of Ananias and Sapphira (Acts 5:4). Lastly, the New Testament lays the normal responsibility for provision of families upon the man of the house (1 Tim. 5:8). Taking all of this evidence as one, the Scriptures require that every man provide for his own household honestly and diligently. But, whether through hardship, irresponsibility, or some other providence, the poor will always be with us, and the Bible requires that all men be generous to the poor. Churches are also instructed by the authority of the apostles not to neglect the poor. Lastly, it is just and right for civil magistrates to encourage land owners (and others that are well off) to give of their incomes to charitable causes (churches, ministries, or poor directly). However when civil governments assume that the actual care of and provision for the poor is their responsibility they go too far.
Marxism and Communism
But many flatly rejected the Bible’s teaching opting for their own ideas, and in the mid-1800s, Karl Marx and his friend Friedrich Engels developed a theory of history, economics, and politics that they called ‘scientific socialism’ which came to be known as Marxism. This theory believed that revolution was the key to bringing about the eradication of class. Competition or capitalism would be replaced by a dictatorship of the working class. It was believed that when the proletariat grasped the reigns of power, private property would be abolished, and civil government would whither away and disintegrate for lack of need, moving from the stage of ‘socialism’ (revolution to proletariat rule) to ‘communism’ (abolition of private property to disintegration of government). These visions for a new order and reorganized society were very attractive to many during this period.
While none of these dreams were ever to be realized, some aspects of them were grasped and developed. Socialist political parties and workers unions formed, societies and clubs working for socialist agendas. But more importantly for the 20th century, some of the bloodiest regimes in history rose to power in the name of Marxism, socialism, and communism, promising equality and justice but delivering oppression and slavery.
When men go their own ways, refusing to be guided by the wisdom of God, they become fools. Change is inevitable. New technologies, industrial advances, and cultural shifts must and will occur. This is because the God of history does new things. He raises up kings and emperors and puts them down. He raises up civilizations and empires and crushes them down to the ground. The Kingdom of God will never be destroyed, but it is growing throughout history in way that is different from all other kingdoms. It is a Kingdom made of men, lands, and blood, but all of the remnants of the old cities of men must be shaken down and torn away. As this occurs, men must always seek the wisdom of God found in the Scriptures.
As we seek to live faithfully before God today, we must seek to repent of the errors of our fathers. Men are not mere producers. Their value is not in their incomes. Viewing our neighbors according to income brackets is foolish and unhelpful. We must seek to return to a way of life that values different stations, gifts, and callings, and we must be generous with whatever we have been given and wherever we have been placed. Secondly, we must likewise repudiate all attempts to eradicate private property. Whether by legislation or theory, these are attempts to rob men of their gifts from God and responsibility before God to use them well. Lastly, we must recognize that God has ordained three basic kinds of government: familial, ecclesiastical, and civil. Each must do its part, seeking the good of all others and not grasping or envying.