Tuesday, January 26, 2010

An American Alternative to Socialism

An historian once said that his communist grandfather had once confidently asserted that anyone who tried to escape from Communism was clinically insane. He meant that literally. How could anybody actually want to leave the worker’s paradise? Compared to that, the worldview of my grandfather, Montelle Boyd, seems banal. He wanted to find a middle way, a collectivism that was neither capitalist nor socialist. In this he was influenced by Protestant liberals such as Francis Greenwood Peabody and Walter Rauschenbusch. These men were passionate about improving society, and serious critics of the atomization of society that capitalism had produced, but they were not revolutionaries.

As a child, I always heard the term Christian-Socialist applied to my grandfather. That oxymoron seems to capture his insistance that Christianity obligated Americans to take bring about an earthly "Kingdom of God" that bore some resemblance to socialism. While it wouldn't necessarily involve the nationalization of state industries, it would involve the reconstitution economic activity along cooperative or collective lines.

August Bebel

According to a relative, Montelle never described himself as a socialist; he didn’t mind the label, but he felt that it was a misnomer because he believed that the concentration of state power that occurred during the 1920s in Russia was just as bad as the concentration of wealth that was threatening America. What exactly did Montelle want? I'm still searching for that answer. To that end, I skimmed one of the few books I’ve inherited from Montelle, Francis Greenwood Peabody’s 1909 The Approach to the Social Question.

Peabody was one of Montelle's professors at Harvard; and he has admitted to his great influence over the course of his life. Peabody’s book doesn’t particularly stand the test of time, but it's intelligent, readable, and even likable. Its conclusions seem strangely dated, less relevant today than, for instance, Marx’s much earlier works. The book focuses upon the Social Question, capitalized probably under the influence of German social theorists, a term that seems to apply to a wide variety of interconnected social pathologies in industrial society.

Peabody was an ecumenical liberal who wanted to find common ground between the demands of revolutionaries and the pleas of conservatives. Society is clearly afflicted. As America modernizes, its citizens suffer from overlapping problems related to class stratification, exploitation, alcoholism, race tensions, sweat shops, disease, labor unrest, and the destruction of the family. The tools of the relatively new science of sociology help to diagnose these and other problems. Society is sick. Individuals cannot address these problems as individuals but rather holistically, as members of intertwined communities. Change is imperative. Even so, the cure is not violence but rather reform.

Unlike Marx, Peabody doesn’t spend too much time on either the diagnosis of societal ills or even suggested prescriptions. Rather, he’s concerned with creating a methodology for addressing the Social Question. He advocates a mixture of economic, political, ethical, and sociological exploration, at a time when social science journals were in their infancy and the disciplines were still being organized and imported to America. Socialist theory guides Peabody’s inquiries but the influence of German Social-Democrats-the world’s largest socialist party at the time—is obviously more important to him than anything the tiny Bolshevik sect might have had to offer at the time. Indeed, the First World War (an event that my relative says influenced Montelle greatly) had not even occurred at the date of publication; the October Revolution was still eight years away.

Auguste Comte

Peabody is ultimately a reformer rather than a radical. He accepts the fact that society requires intervention; he assumes that reform should not interfere with traditional institutions such as family, church, or indeed private enterprise. More than that, Peabody is a Christian. Ultimately, he’s most interested in how Christian ideals should be applied to American political and economic life than he is with the specific societal afflictions.

If Peabody’s book seems peculiarly anachronistic, this anachronism is unrelated to collectivism. His gradualist message of charity rather than revolt seems unremarkable: American did, by and large, choose a middle road between socialism and unfettered capitalism. They often supported change, but never in the context of overwhelming class antagonism or social resentment at economic elites. Americans also celebrated (and Governor Palin still celebrate) small town values, neighborliness, etc. FDR picked up many of the same threads even in the midst of the massive economic upheaval that came two decades later.

What is remarkable is Peabody’s liberal Protestantism as a guide to action. Today, Christianity seems to be unrelated to politics, except insofar as it perceives that the Democratic Party has intruded on the personal or family ethics, especially with respect to gay marriage, abortion rights, and sex education. Mainstream Protestantism doesn’t seem to be an important player in America’s struggles with health care reform, environmentalism, or gay rights. But then again, it’s hard to say whether modern America lacks a reformist Church or a reform movement in general.

Peabody clearly thought that Christianity was the driving force in the public sphere, or at least could be. What is charming about Peabody (and one suspects this about the American intellectual class in general) is that he’s enthralled with the seemingly simple notion that men and women are products of society. Peabody may not be a radical, but he is enchanted by the Marxist creed (echoed by German and French socialists) that human beings are the product of complex historical circumstances and social phenomena.

Ultimately, Peabody and men like him were important influences on the Christian collectivist reform agenda of men like my grandfather. But if a book such as this has a specific message about what to do to improve society, this message is lost on me. It’s a call to avoid quietism: to be Christian is to be involved in social reform. But the author doesn’t suggest any specific reforms, and doesn’t suggest any specific expressions of religious faith other than practicising Christian love through good works. This is a good and noble and learned book, but one that seems to be the embodiment rather than the refutation of Marx’s concern that religion was little more than the ideological expression of class interests. But maybe that’s not always a bad thing…

1 comment:

  1. How could I not comment on this? There is actually a movement within the Church to take a larger role in calling for social reform. This is particularly the case in Ontario (Canada, not California), where an ecumenical coalition lobbied heavily last winter for the government to preserve an anti-poverty agenda in the face of budget cuts. They were successful in that agenda was preserved, though who knows what the future may hold?