Sunday, May 27, 2012

Early Christian Communism

By Murray N. Rothbard

For centuries the alleged ideal of communism had come to the world as a messianic and millennial creed. Various seers, notably Joachim of Fiore, had prophesied the final state of mankind as one of perfect harmony and equality, one where all things are owned in common, where there is no necessity for work or need for the division of labor. In the case of Joachim, of course, problems of production and property, indeed of scarcity in general, were "solved" by man no longer possessing a physical body. As pure spirits, men as equal and harmonious psychic entities spending all their time chanting praise to God, might make a certain amount of sense. But the communist idea applied to a physical mankind still needing to produce and consume is a very different matter. In any case, the communist ideal continued to be put forward as a religious, millennial doctrine. We have seen in volume I its enormous influence on the Anabaptist wing of the Reformation in the 16th century. Millennial and communist dreams also inspired various fringe Protestant sects during the English Civil War of the mid-17th century, particularly the Diggers, the Ranters, and the Fifth Monarchy Men.

The most important forerunner of Marxian communism among these Civil War Protestant sectarians was Gerrard Winstanley (1609–60), the founder of the Digger movement and a man much admired by Marxist historians. Winstanley's father was a textile merchant, and young Gerrard became an apprentice in the cloth trade, rising up to become a cloth merchant in his own right. Winstanley's business failed, however, and he found himself downwardly mobile, an employed agricultural laborer from 1643 to 1648. As the Protestant Revolution escalated in the late 1640s, Winstanley turned to writing pamphlets espousing mystical messianism. By the end of 1648, Winstanley had expanded his chiliastic doctrine to embrace egalitarian world communism, in which all goods are owned in common. His theological groundwork was the heretical, pantheistic view that God is within every man and woman, and is not a personal deity external to man. This pantheistic God has decreed "cooperation," which for Winstanley meant compulsory communism rather than the market economy, whereas the antithetical creed of the Devil glorified individual selfishness. In Winstanley's schema, God, meaning Reason, created the earth, but the Devil later originated selfishness and the institution of private property. Winstanley added the absurd view that England enjoyed communist property before the Norman Conquest in 1066, and that this conquest created the institution of private property. His call, then, was to return to the supposedly original communist system.

In the final, most fully developed version of his system, The Law of Freedom in a Platform, or True Magistracy Restored (1652), Winstanley envisioned a largely agrarian society, in which all goods would be communally owned, and where all wage labor and all commerce or trade would be outlawed. In fact, all sale or purchase of goods would be punishable by death as treasonous to the communist system. Money would be clearly unnecessary since there would be no trade, and presumably it would be outlawed as well. The government would establish storehouses to collect and distribute all goods, and severe penalties would be levied on "idlers." By this time, Winstanley's pantheism had begun to shade into atheism, for all professional clergy would be outlawed, there would be no Sabbath observation, and "ministers" would be elected by the voters to give what would be essentially secular sermons, teaching everyone the virtues of the communist system. Education would be…


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