The religious roots of socialism

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The religious roots of socialism

Early socialism was a secularised religious movement based on Christian principles. By using the language of science, it gained a large following.

When did socialism emerge?

Socialism emerged as an organised movement within journalistic circles during the Industrial Revolution, in the 1820s and 30s.[1] The term itself (‘socialism’) was first used in 1827 by the followers of the British utopian philosopher Robert Owen.[2] While we today associate socialism with the working class, it was actually started by upper-class intellectuals who were concerned about how industrial modernisation was disrupting the traditional social and economic order.[3]

Early socialism was a secularised form of Christianity

Early socialism was the result of a gradual secularisation of various Christian reformist sects.[4] Many new religious movements rapidly grew in the 1820s and 1830s, such as the Mormons, the Methodists, and the Shakers, all of which became increasingly independent of traditional Christian denominations.[5] Socialism was one of these movements, and it started cloaking its Christian message in the language of science. But how did this come about?

Disenchantment and re-enchantment

The Reformation and the Enlightenment had increasingly disenchanted the European worldview by challenging and overthrowing religious authority.[6] This process of disenchantment was enhanced by industrialisation, which drew people to the big cities, away from their rural, religious communities. This caused many people to feel disconnected and alienated.[7] However, new movements quickly emerged to re-enchant the world by seeking salvation and solidarity through science and reason. Many of these movements, including socialism, married a traditional Christian ethic with popular scientific ideas.[8]

Social engineering

Socialism grew out of both a fear of industrialisation and a strong belief in its miraculous power at the same time. It was felt that the power of industry could be harnessed to bring about an egalitarian utopia. However, the only way to make this happen was by putting enlightened government experts in charge of society, who would shape social and economic life to make it fit their ideal model.[9] This ideal model was one of collectivism, where the state owns all the means of production and distribution.[10] People fervently believed that this collectivist social engineering would bring about heaven on earth, guided by scientific planning.[11]

Replacing God

In this worldview, humanity had replaced God as the great architect of history, and government bureaucrats had become the new priests, administering the ideal social order. Science became the new gospel, whose cautious predictions became sacred utopian prophecies.[12] As this scientific rhetoric took hold, socialism started attacking traditional religion and presented itself as a replacement.

The early socialism of the Owenites

The first major socialist, Robert Owen, was a textile manufacturer who started a commune with 900 ex-members of apocalyptic Protestant sects who wanted to revive an ‘original’ Christian egalitarianism.[13] Owen believed this could be achieved simply by changing a person’s environment, since “the character of man is formed for him, not by him.”[14] He therefore despised traditional Christianity, because it asserted that individual sinners were responsible for their own actions and characters. His commune banned private property, introduced a social welfare system, and implemented compulsory schooling to instil the correct attitudes in their children.[15] Owen never surrendered his own property, however, which he had acquired as a businessman.[16]

Owen saw himself as the messianic founder of a new religion who, unlike Jesus, would bring paradise on earth. His disciples therefore addressed him as the ‘Social Father’.[17] The Owenites called their temples ‘halls of science’, their preachers ‘social missionaries’, and they sang special ‘Social Hymns’.[18] After some years, his communes fell apart due to internal suspicion and conflict.[19]

Saint-Simonianism: socialism as the New Christianity

The second most important early socialist was the French philosopher Henri de Saint-Simone.[20] Saint-Simone explicitly called his socialism the ‘New Christianity’, which would replace traditional Christianity.[21] He saw himself as the Messiah, and his book ‘Doctrine de Saint-Simon’ as the socialist Bible.[22] Society was to be governed by a policy board of experts, called the Council of Newton (named after Isaac Newton), which would also organise worship services and education, and build ‘temples of Newton’.[23] The rituals they performed were based on Roman Catholic and Freemason rites.[24]

Saint-Simon and his disciples

Both Saint-Simon and his disciples, Etienne Cabet and August Comte (the founder of sociology), were totalitarian socialists, meaning that they wanted government elites to govern every aspect of society in an authoritarian and centralised way.[25] They even wanted to create a pan-European socialist dictatorship, and later expanded this vision to include the entire world. Needless to say, they were against parliamentary democracy.[26] Paradoxically, they welcomed the freedom and anarchy of the French Revolution, because it would clear the stage for their authoritarian social order.[27] Through their Saint-Simonian countercultural media, they introduced many familiar terms into European discourse, such as ‘class struggle’, ‘bourgeoisie’, and ‘proletariat’.[28]

Socialism as a secular religion

Prof. Andrei Znamenski argues that many historians and philosophers have described socialism as a secular religion, but that these views have often been forgotten or marginalised.[29] Most forms of socialism mixed a religious ethic with a scientific rhetoric, thereby turning science itself into something sacred. In Marxism, sociology was sacralised by turning its predictions into prophecies based on absolute laws of history, which would move society toward a final judgement (the revolution), and an eventual paradise. The proletariat were seen as the ‘chosen’ people who would usher in this utopia.[30]

In National Socialism (Nazism), biology was sacralised instead, thereby shifting the focus from class-based egalitarianism to race-based egalitarianism.[31] National Socialism tried to remove the internationalist and Marxist elements from socialism, and turn it into a national, ethnic socialism. However, it was based on the same statist collectivism that was common across socialist movements.[32] Interestingly, this shift toward ethnonationalism was later seen in many communist regimes as well.[33]

Post-2008 socialism as a religious revival

After communism collapsed in the 1980s and 90s, interest in classical socialism declined as well. However, following the financial crash of 2008, its popularity has been growing.[34] If socialism is indeed a secular religion, as Prof. Znamenski argues, then this renewed interest in socialism could be seen as a kind of religious revival.

Timo Pieters

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[1] Andrei Znamenski, Socialism as a Secular Creed: A Modern Global History (London: Lexington Books, 2021), p. xxiii.

[2] Znamenski, Socialism as a Secular Creed, p. xxviii.

[3] Ibid, p. xxiii.

[4] Ibid, p. xxi.

[5] Ibid, p. xxii.

[6] Ibid, p. xxi-xxii. The Reformation did this by encouraging people to read and interpret the Bible for themselves. This led to an explosion of debate and questioning of authority.

[7] Znamenski, Socialism as a Secular Creed, p. 7.

[8] Ibid, p. 8.

[9] Ibid, p. xiv.

[10] Ibid, p. xxiv.

[11] Ibid, p. 10, 391.

[12] Ibid, p. xvii.

[13] Ibid, p. 1.

[14] Ibid, p. 4.

[15] Ibid, p. 3-4.

[16] Ibid, p. 4. Owen also supported Caribbean slavery, because it was orderly and benevolent, and he campaigned against European reformers who wanted to abolish slavery. Ironically, English conservatives were very interested in Owen’s commune, because it reminded them of the mediaeval feudalism they admired.

[17] Znamenski, Socialism as a Secular Creed, p. 5.

[18] Ibid, p. 9.

[19] Ibid, p. 5.

[20] Ibid, p. xxii. France had already developed a socialist tradition during the French Revolution, called the Jacobins, who wanted to extend the revolution by abolishing private property. However, after some cross-fertilisation with the Owenites, Saint-Simonianism became more popular than the Jacobins.

[21] Znamenski, Socialism as a Secular Creed, p. 15.

[22] Ibid, p. 18.

[23] Ibid, p. 15.

[24] Ibid, p. 18.

[25] Ibid, p. 13-14, 16-17.

[26] Ibid, p. 21.

[27] Ibid.

[28] Ibid, 22.

[29] Ibid, p. xiv-xvii. Philosophers who saw socialism as a secular religion include Gustave Le Bon, Nikolai Berdyaev, Arthur Koestler, Eric Voegelin, Emilio Gentile, Raymond Aron, Murray Rothbard, Paul Gottfried, Gareth Stedman, Yuri Slezkine, John Gray, Michael Burleigh.

[30] Ibid, p. xxiii.

[31] Ibid, p. xvii.

[32] Ibid, p. 166-167.

[33] Ibid, p. xxvi. Including Fidel Castro’s Cuba, Cambodian Khmer Rouge, Mao’s China, Jewish kibbutz socialism, and the French communist party. Even internationalist regimes like the Soviet Union, China, Yugoslavia, Vietnam, and Zimbabwe later developed ethnonationalist attitudes.

[34] Ibid, p. xiii.