Dostoevsky and the Problem of Christian Socialism

Socialism rejects God the way Christians should reject socialism.

By Robert Moeller Published on January 28, 2015

In the character of the godly Alyosha, Fyodor Dostoevsky’s great novel  The Brothers Karamazov shows why socialism is a bad idea. Alyosha, the third (and most virtuous) Karamazov brother, rejects socialism because he believes in God. He chose a path, writes Dostoevsky at the beginning of the novel,

going in the opposite direction of many his age, but he chose it with the same thirst for swift achievement. As soon as he reflected seriously on it, he was convinced and convicted of the existence of God and of the immortality of the soul, and at once he instinctively said to himself: “I want to live for immortality with Him and I will accept no compromise.”

In the same way, if he had decided that God and immortality did not exist, he would at once have become an atheist and socialist. For socialism is not merely the labor question, but it is before all things the atheistic question, the question of the form taken by atheism today. It is the question of the tower of Babel built without God, not to mount to Heaven from earth but to set up Heaven on earth.

I couldn’t have said it better had I blogged it myself.

Socialism, the economic and political theory that advocates the state to control the means of production and oversee the distribution of resources, was relatively new in Fyodor’s day. Intellectuals from Moscow to Mexico thought it would inevitably become the way all countries ran their government, society and economy.

What Dostoevsky Saw

What Dostoevsky saw that the intellectuals didn’t is that the problem with socialism is an inherent rejection of a Higher Power, mankind’s fallen state, and the inherent value of the human person. The problem with free market capitalism is humanity’s sinful nature. The problem with socialism is socialism itself.

In the 18th and 19th centuries, the founders of socialism rejected private property. They loathed the excesses and exploits of industrialization. They believed in the supremacy of science and the ability of the certain enlightened human minds to coordinate the activities of millions of less-enlightened human beings.

Above all else they denied the existence of a personal, rational God and any moral code for living He might have.

This aversion to the divine wasn’t some peripheral, incidental motivation for the founders of modern socialism: it was as foundational to their ethos as “endowed by our Creator with certain inalienable rights” is to the American one. Belief in a Higher Power carries with it certain realities for our day-to-day lives, and even for the way we construct a society and government.  For example, it requires humility to acknowledge “there is a God, and I’m not Him.”

Such humility is a precursor for the acceptance that mankind is not inherently good, but actually inherently flawed (and in need of redemption). If I’m flawed, then we’re all flawed.  If we’re all flawed, then the idea that we can centralize power in the hands of a few and trust their good will and judgment to organize the lives of 300 million people living in the most technologically-advanced, complex civilization in human history becomes untenable — and literally impossible.

Religious Socialism

But as Dostoevsky alluded to in Brothers Karamazov, the secular socialist may hold the specifics of religion in utter contempt, but the emotive language of religious faith comes in handy when they need new disciples. Realizing that no matter how hard they try they can never fully eradicate man’s primal desire for higher truths and spiritual connection, socialism’s prophets begin to invoke language soaked in morality and religion. 

Familiar words like justice, compassion and fairness become effective recruitment tools. After all, these are the terms that the God of the Old and New Testament gave His people to live by. Who could be against justice?

To compound the confusing, contradictory positions they take, socialists readily seek out religious leaders sympathetic to their anti-capitalist, anti-establishment message. Despite what the cynical Millennial in your life might say, the “Religious Right” of the 1980s is not the only example of blurred lines between pulpit and politics. When a young socialist — this was his personal description of himself at the time — named Barack Obama moved to Chicago to pursue a career in “community organizing,” he was told by Rev. Jeremiah Wright that minority groups in the Windy City would not follow his decidedly left-of-center leadership if he was not “in church on Sundays.”

Dostoevsky had something to say about this wolves-in-sheep’s-clothing tactic the secular Left employs.  During a conversation later in Book One of Karamazov, a minor character named Peter Miusov recalls the words of a French police inspector put in charge of squashing the 1848 socialist uprising in France.

We are not particularly afraid of all these socialists, anarchists, atheists, and revolutionists; we keep watch on them and follow all of their doings.  But there are a few peculiar men among them who believe in God and are Christians, but are at the same time socialists.  Those are the people we are most afraid of . . . . The Christian who is a socialist is to be dreaded far more than the socialist who is an atheist.

Often in life, the best way forward is to identify which of the options before you are definite mistakes. As Dostoevsky saw clearly, socialism is a definite mistake.

What’s a good place to start thinking about this? I look to the 19th century French writer Frederic Bastiat to kick things off. Enjoy!

We hold from God the gift which includes all others. This gift is life — physical, intellectual, and moral life.

But life cannot maintain itself alone. The Creator of life has entrusted us with the responsibility of preserving, developing, and perfecting it. In order that we may accomplish this, He has provided us with a collection of marvelous faculties. And He has put us in the midst of a variety of natural resources. By the application of our faculties to these natural resources we convert them into products, and use them. This process is necessary in order that life may run its appointed course.

Life, faculties, production — in other words, individuality, liberty, property — this is man. And in spite of the cunning of artful political leaders, these three gifts from God precede all human legislation, and are superior to it. Life, liberty, and property do not exist because men have made laws. On the contrary, it was the fact that life, liberty, and property existed beforehand that caused men to make laws in the first place.

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