"We can't really be that fallen": a question for Christian socialists

Recently Nathan Robinson, editor-in-chief at Current Affairs, a socialist magazine, responded to National Review's issue "Against Socialism." He considers, successively, thirteen different writers' contributions in the issue. The tone of the piece is cheeky while wanting genuinely to respond in kind to substantive critiques of socialism.

One passage stood out to me. First, here is a paragraph that Robinson quotes from Theodore Dalrymple's essay in the NR issue:

"Socialism is not only, or even principally, an economic doctrine: It is a revolt against human nature. It refuses to believe that man is a fallen creature and seeks to improve him by making all equal one to another. It is not surprising that the development of the New Man was the ultimate goal of Communist tyrannies, the older version of man being so imperfect and even despicable. But such futile and reprehensible dreams, notwithstanding the disastrous results when they were taken seriously by ruthless men in power, are far from alien to current generations of intellectuals. Man, knowing himself to be imperfect, will continue to dream of, and believe in, schemes not merely of improvement here and there but of perfection, of a life so perfectly organized that everyone will be happy, kind, decent, and selfless without any effort at all. Illusion springs eternal, especially among intellectuals."

Here is what Robinson writes in response:

"Now, this part has a bit of truth to it. Socialism is not principally an economic doctrine, and I’ve suggested that the best way to understand it is as the set of principles that arise from feelings of solidarity. But it is not a 'revolt against human nature.' We simply have a difference of opinion on what 'human nature' means and what it allows to be possible. We believe human beings can be a cooperative species and do not see our fellow creatures as helplessly 'fallen' (or rather, if they’ve fallen, it’s our job to extend a hand and get them back up.) It’s true, we like to daydream about everyone being happy, kind, and decent, perhaps because we know so many people who fit the description and we find it easy to imagine the ethos spreading further. But we’re also realistic: we are not focused on mashing our fellow people into a vision of the New Human Being, but on achieving concrete goals that will materially improve people’s lives. I’m a utopian by twilight, but during the day I’m a practical sort, and so are the other lefties I know. Their goals are actually so modest that it’s remarkable they’re so controversial: a good standard of living for all, freedom from exploitation and abuse, democracy in the workplace, a culture of mutual aid and compassion. Can we not manage these things? We can’t really be that fallen."

It's unclear to me whether Robinson is having some rhetorical fun here, or whether he doesn't know the Christian theological language of "fallenness" on which Dalrymple is drawing. For what fallenness names is the condition of human (and indeed all created) life under sin, a condition that, according to Christian faith, will not change, much less be resolved, so long as this world endures. To the claim, "We can't really be that fallen," the broadly catholic, or Augustinian, tradition replies, at least in principle, "Indeed we are that fallen—and it is far worse than you imagine."

Now, that doesn't per se answer the concrete political, economic, or policy goals that Robinson sets out (though I do think there is a bit of a sleight of hand at work between the "modesty" of the proposals and the normative anthropological vision of flourishing he admits underwrites them). And non-religious or non-Christian socialists may be perfectly coherent, and even justified, in rejecting the theological account of human being that the church confesses, following revelation, to be true.

But the Dalrymple/Robinson pairing of perspectives makes for a nice contrast, and one, moreover, that touches on a question I have had percolating in the back of my mind for a while now. The question is for Christians who claim the socialist vision—and here I mean socialism in the strongest of terms, not as a cipher for left-of-centrism or left-of-the-DNC or even social democracy as such.

Here's the question, put a few different ways. What is the relationship between the Christian doctrine of original sin and Christian support for a socialist economy? What role does ineradicable human fallenness play in such an account of socialism's operation and success? Is "human nature" and/or the limits and/or sinfulness of all human beings without exception a determining factor in the Christian support for, or version of, socialism? Does affirmation of human fallenness in some way modify, alter, color, qualify, mitigate, or otherwise affect specifically Christian socialism as opposed to secular or atheistic socialism? Does original sin put a "brake" on the envisageable "perfectibility" (however analogically defined) of human character, action, will, and life together? What role, if any, do fallenness and tragedy play in theoretical accounts of, and policy proposals regarding, ideal economic arrangements in human society?

You get the idea. It's a real set of questions. I know or read just enough Christian socialists to suspect there are answers; I know or read just few enough to lack the awareness of which resources to consult on these questions. I welcome direction—or answers!


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