My Brush with Socialism

Every man should have something that he can shape in his own image, as he is shaped in the image of heaven.
~ G.K. Chesterton

A friend of mine posted a NYT op-ed by David Bentley Hart that caught my eye: “Can We Please Relax About ‘Socialism’?” Yes! My thoughts exactly! I’m so tired of hearing that word bandied about on the left and the right, as if a couple of grade-schoolers with identical plastic light sabers were whacking each other into submission. I’m with Hart: Let’s give socialism a rest already!

But that wasn’t Hart’s point. Instead, he was opining that only here in America “is the word ‘socialism’ freighted with so much perceived menace.” That is, he was coming to socialism’s defense against conservative scaremongers like Ben Stein – whack! – and Republicans in general – whack, whack!

Too bad, for I think some “give it a rest” is in order these days, especially since nobody is in a hurry to define what socialism actually is (and isn’t). And, let’s face it, there’s no real incentive to do so as long as the word’s ambiguity continues to prove so effective in stirring up supporters (and donors).

Yet defining socialism is less important than seeing it in action. “Successful socialism has been created in only one place on earth, the kibbutzim of Israel,” Joshua Muravchik wrote in a different op-ed, this time in the WSJ. “But once the Jewish state was securely on its feet, kibbutzniks chose to switch to private enterprise. Socialism, they learned to their surprise, was not a happy way to live.”

I had a taste of happy socialism among the Hutterites, and it’s worth a look.

The Hutterites and their communitarian ways came to my attention decades ago when I was hanging around the Catholic Worker and reading Dorothy Day. “Before families come, they literally sell what they have and come and lay it at the feet of those members in the group who are in charge,” Day wrote of the Hutterite (at the time) Woodcrest Bruderhof in Rifton, New York. “It is truly a Christian communism.”

I had to check it out for myself, so I wrote ahead and made plans to visit Woodcrest for a couple days. In the meantime, I read up on the Hutterites, their history and values. Founded in Tyrol, Austria, by Jakob Hutter in 1528, the Hutterites were an Anabaptist movement that took very seriously the example set by the early church. “All who believed were together and had all things in common,” we read in Acts 2.44, and the Hutterites decided it was a practice that couldn’t be improved upon. “Communalism is the distinguishing principle by which all Hutterites have lived for nearly 475 years,” writes Laura Wilson. What’s more, “Hutterites are resisters. What they resist most are those influences inimical to their beliefs.” And yet, I also found that they are very open to outsiders and welcoming to all those who are curious about their way of life.

My stay with the Bruderhof, a modern Hutterite-like community, was a full one. I stayed with a family, ate and played and prayed with them, and then I also had a chance to work in their manufacturing business – Community Playthings which specializes in wholesome play equipment and solid youth furniture. I helped assemble a large tricycle, as I remember, and felt pretty good about making a contribution – both to the community hosting me as well as the child who’d benefit from the trike.

And that’s my recollection of this successful, even joyful form of limited socialist utopia: There was freedom within the collective unity. “While we share all we have with each other, we reject any attempts to make people uniform,” reads the Bruderhof’s statement on Community of Goods. “We practice our gifts through our work within the community, but there is also plenty of time to explore and nurture individual pursuits.”

The key here is that Bruderhof and Hutterite communitarianism is structured, but voluntary. There are lines of authority – in the community, in the manufacturing business, within each member family – and yet there is security and solidarity in the group’s commitment to mutual support and service. It’s not perfect – can any society be perfect this side of heaven? – but the folks who join and stay can see that it works, and they’re free to leave if they decide it doesn’t.

I think that highlights an important principle that’s too often overlooked in today’s socialism debates. Authentic socialism – or a fair distribution of goods among those in a society – is surely something to be commended as laudatory and even virtuous, especially for Christians, but it’s hard to accomplish well (or at all) through coercion. Yet, as the Bruderhof demonstrates, it doesn’t have to be coerced.

At least, that’s the lesson I took away from my visit there, and it’s one which has stayed with me ever since. I’m much less interested in questions of how much the state should be spreading wealth around than how I can better spread my own wealth around.

And that’s something I can do, God willing, without a whole bunch of debate.
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Of Facebook Friends and Gratitude

We need a rebirth of gratitude for those who have cared for us, living and, mostly, dead. The high moments of our way of life are their gifts to us. We must remember them in our thoughts and in our prayers; and in our deeds.
~ William F. Buckley, Jr.

William F. Buckley once caught a ride in my truck. He came to buckley140-8853b6e341c1c6184a1a909049cff0dad366c07f-s3-c85Boulder to speak at the University of Colorado when I was a graduate student there, and I not only got a ticket to see him, but also landed an invite to the Young Republicans reception afterwards.

It was 1990, and Buckley’s book Gratitude had just come out. It was a modestly controversial book because it pressed an argument for national service – perilously close to advocating yet another government program according to Buckley’s right-wing critics. But the book’s real theme, aside from policy recommendations, is that we all need to practice gratitude with greater intentionality and conscientiousness.

That evening in Boulder, Buckley demonstrated what he wrote about in a way I’ll never forget. He gave his talk and was ushered over to a nearby facility for the reception. Mr. Buckley must’ve caught a cold, for he was having trouble clearing his throat, and as the reception got underway, he abruptly requested a ride to his hotel so that he could retrieve a cigar and some brandy – evidently a home remedy for colds at the Buckley house. I happened to be nearby when he made the request, and I immediately put myself and my truck at his disposal.

You have to understand that I didn’t exactly look the part at that reception. Shaggy hair and beard, tweed coat and jeans, hiking boots and John Lennon glasses, I stood out conspicuously in that sea of blue blazers and power ties. Nevertheless, without ceremony, Mr. Buckley thanked me for my offer and headed out the door. The Young Republicans all stared at me as I shrugged my shoulders and headed out after him.

fl_s0818_motherteresaSo, there I was, in my battered Toyota pickup, with Bill Buckley of Firing Line and National Review fame seated next to me. I drove him downtown to the Hotel Bolderado, he ran in and out, and I drove him back to campus again. Most of the ride to and fro, I kept up a constant one-sided conversation, ranging from my conversion to Catholicism and embrace of the Catholic Worker milieu, to my enthusiasm for the common interests of the Worker and the National Review, especially in terms of subsidiarity.

Buckley was gracious, listening in silence aside from an occasional murmur of assent or inquiry. When I got him back to the University, he turned, looked me in the eyes, and thanked me most sincerely for the ride. He encouraged me in my intellectual pursuits, and gave my hand a vigorous shake. Later, I approached him at the reception with a book of his. He signed it, “Gratefully, Bill Buckley.”

Authentic gratitude like that was on my mind as I celebrated my birthday last week.  It fell on Gaudete Sunday this year – Pink Sunday.

Yes, yes, I know, it’s “rose,” not pink. Whatever you call it, that lightened purple combined with the lightened liturgical mood is always welcome mid-winter, especially when lake-effect snow and bitter cold are dragging us down. Isaiah sets the tone and gets us thinking beyond our current circumstances to new life just over the horizon:

Then will the eyes of the blind be opened,
the ears of the deaf be cleared;
then will the lame leap like a stag,
then the tongue of the mute will sing.
Those whom the LORD has ransomed will return
and enter Zion singing,
crowned with everlasting joy;
they will meet with joy and gladness,
sorrow and mourning will flee.

That Gaudete Sunday Michelangelo,_profeti,_Isaiah_01coincided with my birthday this year was serendipitous, for it was an especially joy-filled one. Contemplating the many blessings in my life, I couldn’t help marveling that I’d been blessed so abundantly. For example: A loving wife and seven wonderful children – me! A terrific lout blessed with a wife and seven kids! Thank you, God!

Then there’s the fact that the day began in a warm house (thank you, God!) and we had plenty of food to eat (thank you, God!). I drove to the church to get coffee started for CCD (thank you, God, for cars! for our parish! for work!), and later I got to see my son play basketball (thank you, God, for Catholic schools! for healthy kids!).

Mass in the evening (thank you, God, for the Sacraments! for the Church! for faith!), followed by dinner and birthday cake at home, with all nine of us in attendance – thank you, God! Truly, the best birthday ever!

And, later, I got online – behold! A long list of “Happy Birthday!” messages on Facebook – thank you, God!

Now, wait.

Do I mean that? Am I really lumping together Facebook ‘friends’ with my wife, my children, and my faith?

Indeed I am. And why not?

Now, I know that many of those friends are folks I barely know. The whole Facebook/social networking thing is still a bizarre phenomenon to me, but I have no illusions about an environment in which my sister, a buddy from high school, and a student I had in class a half dozen years ago all fall under the same ‘friend’ rubric.

But remember that last scene of It’s a Wonderful Life? George has been saved from despair and suicide by angelic visions and timely human interventions. He’s surrounded by wife and children, close associates and family, acquaintances, neighbors, customers, and a host of Hollywood extras. In the end, his brother Harry lifts a glass and toasts, “To George Bailey! The richest man in town!”

Whence those riches? Obviously Harry doesn’t mean literal riches – George has just narrowly escaped jail time and disgrace as a result of his pecuniary difficulties. No, George’s riches comprise relationships – what the Catechism calls “spiritual communion”: Not only his wife and his family, but his friends as well. All kinds of friends. Clarence, George’s novice guardian angel, inscribes this interpretation in a copy of Mark Twain as a thank you to George: “Remember, no man is a failure who has friends.”

Consider that throng crowding around George in that final scene. Is it likely that all of them could’ve been his friends in the same way? I mean, even in the context of a fictional tale, is it even remotely possible that all those folks were really his chums?

Not a chance. The story portrays George’s real friends as his wife, his brother, Ernie the cabbie, and Bert the cop. Then there was another circle of friends just a bit beyond the inner circle: George’s mom, his uncle, and Sam Wainwright perhaps. Next, a circle of business associates, Mr. Gower, and Mr. Martini, and after that a smattering of neighbors, customers, and so on.

900_its_a_wonderful_life_bw_blu-ray3xAs I scrolled through all my birthday greetings on Facebook, I thought of  Bedford Falls turning out to cheer for George, and I smiled. George discovered in the end that he was indeed valued by a rather large community of friends, both close and not-so-close.

That seems to me a decent metaphor for Facebook, especially on birthdays. A torrent of “Happy Birthday!” posts from our online community of friends – whether lifelong companions, passing acquaintances we wouldn’t recognize on the street, or somewhere in between – can be just as encouraging and welcome as a rousing in-person chorus of Auld Lang Syne. At least it was in my case.

And, yes, I’m grateful. Thanks, friends.

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A version of this story appeared on Catholic Exchange.

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