Religious Communism

(Note: this is a subject of on-going research. I could be wrong about stuffs.)

We tend to think of “communism” as starting with Karl Marx and the Communist Manifesto. Marx was certainly a significant political theorist, but he was actually part of an existing, much larger movement that has its origins in the same reforming impulse that lead to American democracy and many religious communes.

Today we think of “communism” and “democracy” as opposites, but in the 1600s, 1700s, and 1800s, they were more or less the same. Democracy meant a community of people had the right to determine their own laws, instead of the King dictating laws to them. Communism of the day meant that the community had a right to determine their economic fates, rather than the King. In religious communes, in particular, councils voted on both legal and economic matters. Later, the idea of collectively running one’s own country and of collectively running one’s own factory can be seen as the same idea expressed at different levels.

As I understand it, our notion that the government and the economy are two separate entities is fairly modern. 500 years or so ago, the political and economic systems were completely entwined, via that system popularly known as feudalism.

(See also: Anarchism)

I’m still not clear on when or why democracy/communism first became a big deal, but we see at least some interesting groups emerging in the 1600s, with a variety of systems. The Pilgrims of the Plymouth Bay Colony, established a democratic society in 1620, apparently in keeping with Calvinist doctrines. (Though it seems like we could also speak of the precedent set by the Magna Carta, etc.) The colony’s government also administered certain economic concerns, eg, regulating the purchasing of land, but does not appear to have banned private property.

Some Quaker and Shaker groups did hold all property in common. The Diggers, around 1650, were agrarian socialists who attempted to farm on common lands. I believe the Mormons also practiced some form of centralized economic direction in the settling of Utah. And many monasteries and convents have been essentially communistic for centuries.

Some groups were obviously more successful than others, but overall, religious communes seem to have done pretty well, and may have provided much of the inspiration for the secular communism movement.

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4 thoughts on “Religious Communism

  1. Interesting point! I always thought that communism opposes religion, I mean Marx had been notably quoted that religion is “the opium of people”. Yet this post highlights nicely what communism and religion is about: unity. Again, this is a great post! (PS: What do you think about Anarchism?)

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    • Thanks, I’m glad you liked it.
      I suspect that at least occasional communistic-tendencies is an inherent feature of Christianity, due to verses like Acts 2:44-45, “And all who believed were together and had all things in common. And they were selling their possessions and belongings and distributing the proceeds to all, as any had need,” and Acts Acts 4:32–35: “And the multitude of them that believed were of one heart and of one soul: neither said any of them that ought of the things which he possessed was his own; but they had all things common. …Neither was there any among them that lacked: for as many as were possessors of lands or houses sold them, and brought the prices of the things that were sold, And laid them down at the apostles’ feet: and distribution was made unto every man according as he had need.”

      Lots of people have pointed out the parallel between these verses and Marx’s “From each according to his ability, to each according to his need;” in a society where almost everyone read the Bible, the allusion may have been obvious and intentional.

      At any rate, I think the highly hostile position many European reformers took toward religion (just look at the French Revolution) have to be understood in the context of a world where religious organizations possessed far more temporal power than they do now. (I have read that the Catholic Church, for example, owned about 25% of the land in pre-Revolutionary France.)

      Anarchism would have to be a post or few in its own right, but the relevant bit is that anarchist philosophy highlights all forms of power that have control over people, not just the obvious guys in DC. So in anarchist thought, it doesn’t matter if you live in a democracy if one guy has all of the money and therefore you have to spend your entire life doing horrible backbreaking labor just to survive, you still live in a shitty system in which you are actually powerless.

      The anarchists had a big split with the communists back in the 1800s because, as Bakunin put it, “A boot stomping your face is still a boot stomping your face, even when it’s being worn by the dictatorship of the proletariat”. I am probably mis-quoting slightly, but you get the gist. On this count, I think history proved him right.

      Liked by 1 person

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