Socialism: A Reality Check

[1] Eleven percent of the American public thinks President Obama is a Muslim. But another label, true only in the loosest and most attenuated sense, has been attached to him and his political allies. Back in May the state chairs of the Republican Party, meeting in Maryland, declared themselves alarmed at the Democrats’ drift toward socialism. In the GOP view, one might truthfully speak of the “Democratic Socialist Party.” The redoubtable Rush Limbaugh has been equally straightforward. “Socialism is the Obama agenda,” he told Sean Hannity on the latter’s show on June 3. And the health care overhaul proposals coming from the administration are being lambasted as socialistic.

[2] In a way, critics are historically accurate. The word socialism has always been something of a putty nose, elusive of sharp definition and deployed to cover any number of policies, philosophies and movements. In the Progressive Era in this country at the time of WWI it was a catch-all term for any effort at social amelioration and to counter the ill effects of unchecked capitalism and its robber barons.

[3] This was a time of general optimism. The damage done by laissez-faire industrialism was well accounted for among reformers: child labor, sweat shops, slums. But there was a sense that these conditions could be remedied both at an individual level…Jane Addams’ Hull House in Chicago is a storied example…but also at the political level. Many looked to the federal government to protect and defend the interests of those exploited by uncaring entrepreneurs.

[4] Socialists of course, had always championed members of the working class. In 19th century Europe strong socialist movements were significant political players. Although they all advocated some form of statist command economy and public ownership of the means of production, they were hardly univocal and, on the ground, the epithet “socialist” could mean anything and everything. In England, for example, it could cover everyone from mildly incrementalist Fabians to doctrinaire Marxists.

[5] If any type of socialism failed to take the Old World by storm, as an export it never gained any but the slightest traction in the New. In 1898 pacifist, union organizer and unabashed socialist Eugene V. Debs formed the Social Democratic Party of America and as its presidential candidate garnered over 96,000 votes in 1900. While in prison in 1920 he received almost one million.

[6] Perhaps the apex of socialist influence was reached in 1912 when sixty five American cities were led by socialist mayors, but the movement, always fractious, went into steep decline after US entry into WWI. Today, the American Communist Party claims 2400 members, the Socialist Workers Party 1800. (1) Those waving the “No Socialism” placards are a century too late.

[7] Christian involvement in socialism was not lacking in the era of progress. Episcopal priest William D. P. Bliss (d. 1926), for example, founded the Society of Christian Socialists in 1889, the first of its kind in the United States. In this he was influenced by such English Christian social theorists as Frederick Dennison Maurice and Charles Kingsley. But his “socialism” did not involve advocating for a collectivist-style government to replace American democracy or the free enterprise system in toto. Rather, Bliss and his colleagues were interested in applying the teachings of Jesus (2), centered in neighbor-love and mutual responsibility, to the emerging industrialized and urbanizing landscape.

[8] In the same period Josiah Strong (d. 1916) spoke out against the “gross materialism” corrupting public morals, sought to reconcile individualism and socialism and wanted to make the venerable Protestant Chautauqua movement an instrument of the Social Gospel. Roman Catholics tended to shy away from socialist talk but could draw on a rich tradition of theological reflection on the divine requirements for capital and labor. This culminated, in the period in question, with the encyclical De Rerum Novarum of 1891, and, in the United States, with the Bishops’ Program of Social Reconstruction (1919), which called for a legal minimum wage, social insurance for unemployment and illness and provision for collective bargaining. The Protestant analog was the “Social Creed of the Churches,” adapted from a Methodist prototype, adopted at the first meeting of the Federal Council of Churches in 1908. It supported the protection of workers physically and socially, increased leisure, higher wages and the abolition of sweatshops and child labor.

[9] A much more famous example of a “Christian Socialist” is Walter Rauschenbusch, one of a handful of fathers of the American Social Gospel movement, indigenously American but influenced nonetheless by Anglo-Catholic Anglicans. Rauschenbusch, son of a Lutheran pastor-turned-Baptist, began his ministry at Second Baptist Church in New York City, and then taught for many years at Rochester Seminary. His influential books included A Theology for the Social Gospel and Christianizing the Social Order. Another, Christianity and the Social Crisis, made an indelible impression on Boston University theology student Martin Luther King, Jr. (3)

[10] Steeped in the theology of individual soul-saving, he came to believe that “the person concerned with saving souls must be concerned also with changing the economic and social conditions that blight souls.” (4) Rauschenbusch identified himself as a socialist “for working purposes (5), vigorously encouraged Christian cooperation with American socialists and at one point nearly became a member of the Socialist Party. He spoke at a 1917 Party-supported rally against US entrance into the war in Europe. But his overarching goal was not to support any particular ideology or political entity but to further “social redemption” by recapturing “the great social hope of early Christianity. (6) To that end he highlighted socialism’s idealistic commitment to alleviating the suffering of the masses. Some trustees of the seminary, however, were wary of what they labeled the professor’s socialism, a loose epithet, as I’ve mentioned, even then, but did not in the end mount a strong campaign to oust him. (7)

[11] Rauschenbusch himself was critical of socialism, however much he was attracted to its respect for the inherent worth of the lowly. Writing in 1895 to fellow members of the Brotherhood of the Kingdom, a Protestant Social Gospel artifact which was itself divided on embracing socialism, the professor pointed out socialism’s materialistic philosophy and inattention to the liberty of the individual and the stability of the family.

[12] Walter Rauschenbusch’s perspectives fit well with the commanding vision of the Social Gospel. (8): free-market, invisible-hand capitalism should not be allowed to trample on the needs, rights and dignity of working people; the right to collective bargaining should be protected; paying a living wage was the duty of all employers; Jesus’ teachings and the values of the Kingdom of God were guides to social progress; sin in corporate and systemic, not merely individual (cf. Reinhold Niebuhr’s Moral Man and Immoral Society).

[13] It can be argued that the Social Gospel helped shape the New Deal of the 1930s. A key figure in molding FDR’s policies was his Secretary of Labor (1933-45), Frances Perkins, the first female cabinet member and, early in her career, a member of the Socialist Party. (9) She made important contributions to legislation on Social Securing, unemployment compensation, minimum wage, child labor and the forty-hour work-week. A staunch Episcopalian of the aforementioned Anglo-Catholic variety (10), Perkins believed, with Rauschenbusch, that the state should be viewed positively as the people in action, promoting the welfare of the total community. (11) Indeed, helping working people through legislation, for example, the Fair Labor Standards Act, was for her holy, incarnational work, using the state as an instrument of compassion.

[14] As many have noted, there are parallels between the effort to enact Social Securing in 1935 and the present furor over health care reform. Republican opposition was fierce. A New York congressman, for example, charged: “The lash of the dictator will be felt, and 25 million free American citizens will for the first time submit themselves to a fingerprint test. (12) Perkins herself was not immune from attack. In a Senate hearing she was asked by a gentleman from Oklahoma, “Isn’t this socialism?” Upon hearing her demurral, the senator whispered conspiratorially, “Isn’t this a teeny-weeny bit of socialism?” (13)

[15] For all the loose talk (14) of socialism in the current health care debate (if it can be dignified with that word), the term and its proposals have had only the most ephemeral impact in the United States. What has had an impact is a tradition of Christian ethical reflection on social problems and the social order, and action toward increased justice on the part of the churches. (15) This tradition has influenced, to cite one example, Hillary Clinton through her Methodist upbringing, and the administration in which she serves can be located firmly in an American progressivism historically abetted by a socially-aware Protestant theology articulated by the fierce brilliance of Dr. King.

[16] Its enduring appeal can be seen in renewed attention to the social, political and economic implications of the Christian hope among evangelicals, exemplified by Sojourners/Call to Renewal. As the president said in a recent Sojourners-sponsored conference call, “We really are our brothers’ and sisters’ keepers.”


1. For more, see the website “Digital History.”

2. In 1897 University of Chicago professor Shailer Mathews brought out The Social Teachings of Jesus.

3. Paul M. Minus, Walter Rauschenbusch, American Reformer. New York: Macmillan, 1988, p. x.

4. Minus, op. cit., p. 92.

5. Minus, op. cit., p. 154.

6. ibid.

7. Socialism, in the Progressive Era, could stand for democratic idealism, the moralization of economics and politics or, in Rauschenbusch’s phrase, social redemption.

8. The Social Gospel was a magazine published 1897-1900 by the Christian Commonwealth Society.

9. See a new biography of Perkins by Kirsten Downey, The Woman Behind the New Deal (Nan A. Talese/Doubleday).

10. British Anglo-Catholics have historically been involved with issues of social and economic justice. Perkins attended Maurice Reckitt’s Summer School of Sociology, which concerned itself with developing a comprehensive Christian social theory.

11. Echoing Luther’s two-kingdom teaching, Rauschenbusch thought both church and nation were divine instruments of progressive social change. Minus, op. cit., p. 169.

12. Nancy J. Altman, “Securing Healthcare.” Los Angeles Times, August 14, 2009.

13. Ibid.

14. A white “Freedom Rider” is quoted as allowing that “the consensus is that this is not a left-wing government, but that this is more of a Marxist [government].” Los Angeles Times, September 17, 2009.

15. Gary Dorrien traces the trajectory of this tradition in his 2008 book Social Ethics in the Making (Wiley-Blackwell).

Bruce Wollenberg

Rev. Bruce Wollenberg, PhD. is a retired pastor living in Santa Barbara.