Three Ways Helmut Gollwitzer Can Help Christians in the US Think About Socialism

mcmaken.jpg

This piece is part of a series of responses to the book Our God Loves Justice: An Introduction to Helmut Gollwitzer by W. Travis McMaken. We will be posting five responses to the book as part of this series. Our second contribution is from Dean Detloff.

Dean Dettloff (@DeanDettloff) is a Catholic communist in Toronto, where he writes as a freelance journalist. He is completing a PhD in the philosophy of religion at the Institute for Christian Studies. With Matt Bernico, he co-hosts The Magnificast, a podcast exploring Christianity and leftist politics.

Like it or not, the groundswell of support for Bernie Sanders signaled a shift in public discourse about “socialism.” Not only did the Democrats have to outline that they are non-negotiably capitalist (as Nancy Pelosi remarked in a CNN town hall), but an influx of would-be socialists funneled into otherwise dormant institutions like the Democratic Socialists of America. In the 2016 primaries, Sanders won more votes from people under 30 than Clinton or Trump combined, and in a Harvard poll from that year just over half of respondents between 18 and 29 said they do not support capitalism. Despite the desperate hand-wringing of a self-appointed vanguard of centrists, there is a very real possibility that the coming years of US politics will be pressured by concerns about wealth inequality and distribution.

Christians occupy a strange place in this cultural moment. On the one hand, there has been a significant uptick, unquantified but palpable, of Christians exploring socialism and denouncing capitalism. On the other hand, white Christians are responsible for the wave of reactionary Christianity that elected Trump as a mythical capitalist savior and further emboldened white supremacists. And while that means Christians are divided along class lines in some respects, the numbers are still decidedly in favor of racialized capitalism.

In the introduction to Our God Loves Justice, Travis McMaken says Christians in the United States are living in a “kairos” moment, an ancient Greek term for a moment of decision. He cites a number of historical studies and recent trends to suggest that, despite the hegemony of Christian conservatism, a minority of white American Christians have sometimes managed to take the just side in class struggle, and perhaps more might--or at least could--do so again. Not every white Christian in American history has been a brutally cynical evangelical, and while white Christians were certainly never a majority force of revolutionary change in the US, the contingencies of history McMaken explores underline that there are at least multiple potential paths still open for white Christians to dismantle the structures of privilege we build and maintain.

It’s a hard point to prove; the weight of history shows white American Christianity to be not just a tool of racialized capital, but its very gears and grease (which is not lost on McMaken). McMaken doesn’t have to rely on his own argument alone, however, to suggest white Christians might contribute to a socialist movement committed to undoing the structures of Christian injustices. Instead, he says this kairotic moment is the opportune time to revisit the life and theology of Christian socialist Helmut Gollwitzer (1908-1993), a German theologian who thought, fought, and prayed through a tumultuous reordering of world history, what Marxist historian Eric Hobsbawm called the Short Century (1914-1991).

It might seem like McMaken is overstating his case. Clearly McMaken is moved by Gollwitzer, but is Gollwitzer really so urgent as a dialogue partner? Why Gollwitzer and not, say, James Cone or Rosemary Radford Ruether? Though reading one more twentieth-century German theologian will not be the decisive factor in this decisive moment, there are at least three good reasons to agree with McMaken that Gollwitzer can offer an important intervention for us now.

First, reading Gollwitzer connects us with other kairotic moments. He was part of the Confessing Church under Nazism, and was a prisoner of war in the USSR for several years. Gollwitzer’s socialism, although nourished already by his Soviet-sympathising teacher Karl Barth, was formed in the crucible of the 60s, when so much of the world seemed to be on the verge of socialist transformation--the war in Vietnam, Latin American movements inspired by Cuba, decolonial struggles, etc. When the radical student organizer and socialist Rudi Dutschke narrowly survived being shot in 1968 by a right wing anticommunist, Gollwitzer and his wife, Brigitte Freudenberg, took Dutschke and his family in and arranged for them to be moved to Cambridge in the UK. Gollwitzer has one of those lives that contains a multitude of world historical events.

American ideology tries to instill short memories and national myopia, and well-intentioned socialists are not immune. Because socialism is not an ahistorical set of ideas, coming into contact with lives like Gollwitzer’s helps us to see how Christians have dealt with the legacy of socialism as it has unfolded. He remained in dialogue with theologians around the world, especially the global South, and tried to come to terms with colonialism, white supremacy, and capitalist imperialism during many decisive moments for global socialist projects. Due to his interest in the immediate global politics of his time, Gollwitzer connects us to a network of other people, places, and struggles that still have a lot to teach any nascent socialist movement in the US. In the same way that Gollwitzer marched in Germany to support the Sandinistas in Nicaragua, so, too, must American Christians and socialists have the courage to speak up for socialist movements around the world.

Second, though the swirl of public discourse around socialism might be exciting, it is also a significant danger. It’s admittedly odd to say this about a country that has done more than any other in the world to stamp out socialism at home and abroad. Yet the last few years of tumultuous internal politics in the DSA, the class chauvinism of popular socialist pundits, and the liberal caricatures of socialism show that talking about what we mean by “socialism” makes a huge difference. Socialism already lacks a unified tradition, and an influx of socialist novices and popular critics means the term is up for grabs in a way that threatens to lose some of what specificity it might have. For example, when Bernie Sanders describes himself as a “democratic socialist,” many other socialists scoff. Can a socialist cite figures like anticommunist Winston Churchill as an inspiration, project foreign policy that continues American intervention, vote for the extradition of Assata Shakur, or fail to propose a plan to eliminate (not just loosen) the grip of private property on civil society? Though Gollwitzer’s own democratic socialism is subject to important critiques from the left and sometimes strikes me as being too vague, he allows his position to be challenged by actually existing socialism and important conversation partners, even saying “the Christian faith liberates us, our reason and our will, to fight for socialist world revolution.”

Gollwitzer also wrestled through some of the uncomfortable questions that arise through struggle. As McMaken explains here on Theology Corner, instead of taking a default line of total nonviolence, Gollwitzer took a complicated position on violent struggle, neither celebrating violence nor condemning it on principle. Gollwitzer also understood the necessity of anti-imperialism and international solidarity, knowing the struggle against capitalism must be fought across borders. Further, Gollwitzer’s understanding of democratic socialism was seriously developed in dialogue with socialists from other tendencies, leading him to emphasize the need to, like Rosa Luxemburg, not settle for reformist solutions to capitalist structures. If one is to be a democratic socialist, one should follow the example of Gollwitzer by keeping the communication lines open with Marxist-Leninists, radical students, decolonial movements, etc. Gollwitzer even spoke at the funeral of Ulrike Meinhof, a member of the militant Red Army Faction. Lastly, Gollwitzer’s socialism saw the importance of resisting other forms of domination like white supremacy, attempting to learn from theologians like Cone, which is an especially pressing commitment amid the trend of white socialists to insist on the primacy of class oppression to the relativization of racism--white supremacy will not be solved by a socialist revolution in the United States, and the embarrassing whiteness of popular socialist discourse in the US attests to that.

Third, Gollwitzer’s theological heritage, stemming from Barth, might be more strategically amenable to American Christians than a variety of other voices for Christian socialism. Gollwitzer’s faith retains something of an evangelical dimension, insisting on the presence of God and the event of the church, and his socialism is directly informed by his theology, as McMaken regularly points out. Though Gollwitzer understands that socialism aims for systemic, material change, he also thinks there are specifically Christian reasons to be a socialist. These reasons, at least as expressed in writings like “Why Am I, as a Christian, a Socialist?,” are refreshingly simple. Building on the gospel demands to love and serve our neighbors, Gollwitzer writes, “The Christian community is intended to be a fellowship that is free of privilege and domination. For this reason, it stands in opposition to the privilege-based society that surrounds it. It belongs to the Christian community’s responsibility for the world that it is not only an island within which people live differently, but also a cell that produces an external effect, which participates in dismantling the system of privileges in cooperation with parallel efforts.”

Gollwitzer’s faith is biblically rooted and draws off the Protestant Reformers in a way that might appeal to American Protestants in particular. Of course, this is not to suggest disseminating Gollwitzer pamphlets would simply enlighten the Christian masses to a revolutionary position, but rather to say Gollwitzer provides helpful tools and vocabulary to talk with those who have been disciplined so strongly to hate socialism and see it as antithetical to Christianity. As someone who was at one time a conservative evangelical, who gobbled up anarchists like Jacques Ellul because of their biblical and accessible language, I suspect if I would have found Gollwitzer sooner I would be further down the road than I am now in terms of socialist praxis. To that end, not only would Gollwitzer offer challenges for average Christians, but in a “kairos” moment when young people are flirting with socialism and also evacuating traditional forms of Christianity, he might be a useful bridge for those exiting stifling forms of conservative faith who nonetheless don’t feel compelled to jump ship altogether when it comes to believing in God.

Socialism is a necessary node in a network of struggles against intersecting oppressions. It provides a transformational view of society that can help Christians take a more positive political role. Most progressive Christians today not only lack the means to gain power, they are afraid of trying to build them, as Daniel Camacho recently argued. Gollwitzer’s socialism suggests a different tack. There are many critical conversations to have about Gollwitzer’s socialism--how can Christians avoid the reformist traps that plague democratic socialists and social democrats? beyond the acceptance of socialism as a broad imaginative paradigm, what specific, material demands can Christians make in the US today? does the evangelical character of Gollwitzer’s theology contain its own dangers? how is Gollwitzer’s thought still a product of his whiteness, maleness, and heteronormativity? Reading Gollwitzer alone will not be enough to have a fully-fledged conversation about socialism in American churches (and McMaken knows this). But in this “kairotic moment,” McMaken’s attempt to provide one more articulate voice to get Christians, especially white Christians, thinking about their complicity in racialized capitalism is a helpful contribution.