Christians for Socialism - A Response

I hope I never forget the moment I read Luke 6:20-25 for the first time with open eyes. God only knows how often I had come across that passage, assumed some vague, spiritual interpretation utterly disconnected from the “real” world, and moved on. However, the moment I actually read this particular passage, I remember being struck by the strong disparity cast by Jesus between the rich and poor and their respective “rewards.” Christ offers no solace to the rich, for as he reminds his followers, their “consolation” is finished. They, the rich, will now experience the pain of suffering and destitution, something the poor experience daily through no fault of their own. Likewise, the poor will now receive everything they already deserve: vitality, sustenance, and joy. Their time of fulfillment has come. As the “kingdom of God” makes its way into the world, the tables have turned: the poor are fed (with actual resources), and the rich are left hungry. Christ’s final declaration on the Cross—“It is finished”—takes on new meaning when considering what, exactly, became realized.

My newfound reading of that particular passage—with its linguistic bravado and forceful disruption of common, neoliberal interpretations seeking to explain away the material nature of Christ’s words—came alongside a personal migration toward a theology of liberation. This is not the time or place to detail every step of that journey, though my path into socialism undergirded by Christian theology began when I walked out the door of milquetoast evangelicalism and opened the door of church history. Upon realizing that the train of thought behind my position in history was both deep and wide, the possibilities of a political theology which could answer the social ills of our present moment became all the more real. Literalism gave way to deconstruction, orthodoxy gave way to heterodoxy, conservative libertarianism gave way to a trenchant critique of capitalism, and the rest shall we say, is history. I traded the ideological, dichotomous separation of material and spiritual, and perhaps even the Platonic preference of spiritual over and against the material, for a theology which saw no separation or preference of any sort: if religion is to be worthwhile in any sense, religion must unequivocally side with the poor, and if that maxim is true (and therefore possible), our political engagement must reflect this without fail. The spiritual and material are inseparable.

To that end, I was glad to see a resurrection of the Christians for Socialism (CfS) movement. Admittedly, I have not yet found any particular group on the Left I feel comfortable donating resources toward or organizing with. Part of this is due to my own understandings of socialism and political vitality (preferring the insights of the Italian Autonomist movement and its strident anti-party stance, although I will return to this later) and it is also due to general resistance I’ve encountered from some on the Left because of my religiosity. To be fair, the distrust toward religion on the Left is often justified, and I would never defend the worst atrocities of imperialism and colonization tied to religious ideology simply because I am religious. Moreover, “religion” in the United States is often made synonymous with conservative evangelicalism, a movement I am very much opposed to. Still, there is a profound tradition of religious socialism at work within Marxist circles, and to that end, CfS represents a welcome offering in the fight for justice.

A recently published manifesto, “The Wind Blows Where It Chooses” (available on the CfS website), details what a Christian interpretation of Marxism might look like for our time. Most of the text details the history of CfS as primarily Latin American movement originating in the 1970’s, which for many readers unaware of that first iteration, would be a welcome revelation. That CfS came out of revolutionary struggle primarily alongside Allende’s socialist government, only to be repressed by Pinochet’s dictatorship and U.S. interference, should go to show that CfS, even in its rebirth, has deep roots in an explicitly international socialist milieu; this is not another version of progressive evangelicalism trying to wear the mask of Marxism. Moreover, that the original CfS organizers saw their very constitution as dialectical in some form—“service to the church and service to the people”—demonstrates that, as mentioned previously, there is no easy separation between material and spiritual. Intertwined, complex, and impossible to disentangle, when it comes to the question of justice, the answer is “both/and.” Neither service to the church nor service to the poor are at odds but are one and the same in actual practice.

One particular element of the manifesto deserves mention here, and for my own purposes, represents the crux of what should make CfS a viable player in the revolutionary struggle. In the section aptly entitled “Liberating Theologies” the writers suggest that “the horizon of liberation must remain constantly open to the movements of the Spirit, which cannot be foretold, predetermined, or fixed in a once-and-for-all program.” Justice-for-each necessitates a willingness to change tactics if necessary while never changing the impetus for our struggle. In the translation from idea to action, from speech to movement, the result may, depending on the shifts in context, look differently in execution. And yet, the idealism upon which Christians struggle for liberation and deference to the marginalized never leaves, but instead becomes flesh in an unknown myriad of embodiments. When the word—socialism—becomes flesh, we give thanks without expecting this variation to last forever.

It is therefore good that CfS eschews the language and organization of party or church. Neither institution, unavoidable as they might be in some contexts, has the ability to translate the demand of “here-and-now” into efficacious political action. Parties become mired in seemingly inescapable bureaucracy, and churches become mired in seemingly unavoidable hierarchical oppression. Put simply, neither has the ability long-term to sustain the revolutionary struggle. Insofar as liberation is concerned, no matter how homogeneous a political movement becomes, its vitality is always sustained at the bottom, in localized settings that is adaptable to change. Hopefully, with the advent of local chapters, CfS will remain true to its commitment for grassroots organizing, feeding potential religious revolutionaries into the larger fight without diminishing the importance of localized autonomy.

As mentioned prior, I take my political cues from the Italian Marxist movement, “Autonomia.” Consider the following quote from Sylvere Lotringer (emphasis added):

Autonomy is the body without organs of politics, anti-hierarchic, anti-dialectic, anti-representative. It is not only a political project, it is a project for existence. … Political autonomy is the desire to allow differences to deepen at the base without trying to synthesize them from above, to stress similar attitudes without imposing a “general line,” to allow parts to co-exist side by side, in their singularity.

“Christians” for “Socialism” — a phrase which engenders questions, concerns, possibilities. The temptation would be to “synthesize” these seemingly oppositional concepts into a workable hybrid, a proto-singularity of thought which avoids the pitfalls of both extremes. And yet the insight of the Autonomist movement in 1970’s Italy was that the dialectic and its perpetual quest for synthesis is often insufficient in working out tensions created by capitalism and the structure of modern society; not only is capitalism evil, but the preferred solutions for countering capitalism (primarily political representations and parties) are still subservient to that pernicious ideology which makes us believe we need these mechanisms to be efficacious. The dialectic, the political party, the very notion of political representation—these are not capable of actualizing liberation, according to Autonomist thinkers such as Lotringer. What makes a political movement viable is its almost rabid defense of difference, its refusal to homogenize underneath a singular totality to the exclusion of all others; even the word “autonomy” itself invokes resistance to totalization. If CfS seeks a place in the fight for justice, it must affirm this resistance to totality. Justice-for-each demands a plasticity of thought, a malleability and creative refusal toward prevailing assumptions.

Why do I mention the Autonomist movement in relation to CfS? Simply put: heterodoxy is more viable politically than orthodoxy. In the haze of neoliberalism and its mutating expansion, those of us who follow Christ must eschew the temptation to “toe the line” of dogma. And, in the same vein, those of us who follow Marx’s critique of political economy must resist the temptation to blind allegiance to dialectical materialism. Defense of static truth only solves today’s problem. CfS must, to the best of its abilities, seek the invention of new truths to answer the problems of both today and tomorrow. Invention, plasticity, creativity, openness: insofar as political organizing is concerned, CfS will falter in its desires if it succumbs to the temptations of totality, orthodoxy, dogma, and homogeneity. CfS must hold close the ambiguity of the signifiers “Christian” and “Socialism” and permit the expansive possibility of thought among its ranks; the only totality permissible is clear resistance to neoliberal capitalism and preference for socialism.

Previously, I mentioned that there is no actual separation between material and spiritual. And yet, the descriptor “Christians” signifies something spiritual, while “Socialism” signifies something material. Consider, once again, Jesus’ words to the disciples in the Gospel of Luke regarding the position of the rich and the poor. His language engenders tangible shifts in the material world due to a (seemingly) spiritual movement, namely, the kingdom of God. This aptly summarizes my position: there is no separation between the spiritual and the material because for the Word-made-flesh, material change occurs at the onset of spiritual disruption, and what we might term “spiritual transformation” takes place in the confines of the world as such—within tangible materiality. To that end, CfS should be a welcome and efficacious addition to the Left as it reminds all of us, religious or otherwise, that difference is good. At the bottom, difference will always resist universality.

I welcome the rebirth of CfS and wish it luck in organizing. Let it never become a church or a party.