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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