Symposium Introduction

Political theology needs deeper, more socialist, and thus more democratic roots. The dominant presumption that a German Nazi legal theorist sets the terms for political theology frustrates our political theological imaginations, most especially when confronted with problems of economic, racial, and climate catastrophe. On top of this, most accounts of Christian socialism in Britain and Germany regurgitate the lone hero myth—readers may be familiar with F. D. Maurice but are unaware of the movements that produced Maurice or other important leaders like G. D. H. Cole or William Temple; they may be familiar with Karl Barth and Paul Tillich’s early and crucially influential experiences with socialism, but they are ignorant of the role that Hermann Kutter or Leonhard Ragaz played in making such influence possible. This creates a problematic: political theologians shape their positions nearly always in response to the Schmittian position. Those who reject Schmitt’s analysis open the possibility of a reverse-Schmittian position: all theology is political. Is political theology merely stuck with the Schmittian and reverse-Schmittian positions?

Gary Dorrien’s Social Democracy in the Making: Political and Religious Roots of European Socialism is a breath of fresh air of alternative genealogies and thus potential futures. As Dorrien replies to Catherine Keller in the forum below, Dorrien doesn’t “slam the door” on the reverse-Schmittian position. Dorrien’s point is that democratic socialism and Social Democracy did not come from nowhere, and telling this history expands our political theological imaginations. Dorrien’s work is richly historical, keenly insightful in its explication of Marxian political philosophy, and deeply theological. Those familiar with Dorrien’s work will find an author who, to my eyes and ears, is closer to his subject and so more courageous in stepping out from behind the history to point a way forward. The table-setting first chapter quickly moves to three chapters that delve into the story of democratic socialism and Social Democracy in Britain (chapter 2) and Germany, giving ample pages to teasing out Marxian theory (chapter 3), and dedicating essentially a whole chapter to Barth and Tillich (chapter 4). His final two chapters return to Britain and the guild and Fabian movements, before leaving his readers with the potentially ambiguous legacy of democratic socialism as pluralistic social democracy.

This forum brings together an interdisciplinary, intergenerational group of thinkers who are equally as passionate about this subject as Dorrien. Scholars like Joerg Rieger and Catherine Keller are well known for expertly teasing out the theo-political threads of our contemporary crisis. Rieger pushes Dorrien to consider the fundamental role of production and workers in democratic socialism. For her part, Keller points out that the best position for Christian democratic socialism is one that honestly accounts for its roots in theological liberalism that too easily acquiesced to disgusting and evil fascism. No easy separation between the political and religious traditions can be made: the point is to tell the history honestly and let the cleavages and alliances show themselves in order to help us make judgments for the best democratic socialist future. Filipe Maia offers an important contribution to the reverse-Schmittian line of political theology grounded in the liberationist theological critique of capitalism. Cynthia Moe-Lobeda questions what Dorrien’s book can offer our urgent economic and climate crisis, while suggesting that Dorrien sides with parties of Social Democracy rather than democratic socialism. Geoffrey Kurtz offers a helpful ideal-type analysis of the different theological roots of British and German strands of democratic socialism, while also suggesting four crucial aspects of Christian socialist thought.

Because they tower over nearly all forms of contemporary theology, Barth and Tillich are constant examples in these contributions. Dorrien has a bone to pick in getting Barth and Tillich’s relation to socialism right. Neither hold a light to the legacy of Ragaz (or in the United States, to Walter Rauschenbusch), but that is primarily because both loved Germany too much. For those readers hungry for a similar account of democratic socialism in the United States: patience is a virtue. Dorrien’s forthcoming second volume tells the US side of the story. Social Democracy in the Making stops in the mid-1960s with G. D. H. Cole, a Fabian atheist. The legacy is ambiguous yet promising because we have yet to see what political theologians will do with this impressive and urgently needed genealogy. This forum is a suggestion that this breath of fresh air can enliven, inspire, and challenge political theology in new directions.

Filipe Maia


Political Theology and the Socialist Hope

It may be obvious, albeit necessary, to begin my response to Gary Dorrien’s formidable Social Democracy in the Making with a reference to its first paragraph. From the start Dorrien indicates that the book combines his intellectual work and decades of social activist work, most recently in the 2016 Bernie Sanders presidential campaign (ix). Capturing the rebellious spirit wrought by the Occupy Wall Street movements, the Sanders campaign brought social democratic principles into the political agenda of the United States. Social Democracy in the Making narrates a story of similar breakthrough moments in the history of Germany and Great Britain, but the reader is never fully allowed to preserve this story in a safe historical vault. After all, Dorrien’s opening words also remind us of the victorious side of the 2016 US American presidential campaign. One could thus read Social Democracy in the Making as the history of a tradition currently coming to its fateful end, stunned by a renaissance of fascism.

That would be a mistake. In light of Donald Trump’s victory, the widespread assault on Social Democracy, and the global rise of fascism, this book displaces its readers to a historical account of the German and British trajectories in democratic socialism only to remind us continuously about the urgent need of a “Social Democratic standard of social decency” (x). Dorrien’s historical retrieval openly carries with it an “implied judgment about which parts of the history still matter” (xiii). In fact, this implied judgment implicates the reader in the politics of social democracy. Dorrien’s text treats its readers gently through a vast array of historical research while also radicalizing them into a tradition that conceives of history and theory as components of social and political transformation. For its theological audience, this book may also help to construct a new political-theological agenda.

For those accustomed to Dorrien’s work, the book will offer no surprises: it once again showcases his uncanny combination of erudition and a captivating prose, historical acumen, and theoretical depth, all the while conjuring radical political sensibilities. The book smoothly moves between intellectual and political landscapes of German and British social democratic traditions showing its ties—and disagreements—with Christian socialism. The focus is primarily on Britain and Germany, though Dorrien cannot help making occasional references to other nations, particularly the United States. This is certainly a statement about the book’s “implied judgment.” As Dorrien points out, the British case is “exceptional” because it combines social democratic politics, pragmatism, ethics, and an appreciation of religion. Germany, on the other hand, is much closer to debates in Marxist theory, less generous about religion, and more focused on ideological disputes. Germany and Great Britain trotted different paths but ultimately landed on similar ground—revisionism. Social Democracy in the Making does not capitulate into the discourse that this is necessarily a move away from the core of the socialist project, but rather points to the major achievements of this legacy even as it calls for continuous revisions and self-critique. Dorrien is always very clear in identifying the core of democratic socialism: an “ethical passion for social justice and radical democratic community” (4) combined with its insistence on economic democracy (468). For these reasons alone, the book is already a relief in a global context that indicts social democratic principles only to endorse a rising fascist wave.

But Social Democracy in the Making also offers a great deal of insight for political theology. Dorrien’s first chapter, “Christian Socialism in Social Democracy,” opens with an important claim: “Political theology needs a better genealogy than the Carl Schmitt story that it usually tells.” Dorrien argues that an “incomparably better” genealogy would be to trace the history of political theology in the “religious and ethical socialists who imagined a democratic socialist society and contributed to the making of Social Democracy” (2). This is a crucial argument. Dorrien clarifies that the “reverse-Schmitt procedure” is related to “neo-Marxist, Whiteheadian, Deleuzian, and liberationist forms of political theology,” another important observation (3). As someone committed to this genealogy of political theology, particularly in its neo-Marxist and liberationist veins, Social Democracy in the Making creates possible pathways for further studies that unearth the connection between the story the book tells and current debates in political theology. In light of this, the major question the book raised for me is the extent to which Christian socialism has been able to create a robust legacy in political theology.

Nowhere is this issue more clearly addressed than in chapter 4, “Germanic Political Theology.” Dorrien describes the birth of twentieth-century theology in that fateful day in August 1914 when Karl Barth learned that his former teachers, the cultural elite of German Protestant liberalism, cheered for Germany’s declaration of war (218). Barth’s encounter with the chauvinism of his former professors puts contemporary theology right at the center of a political situation that ultimately led the Swiss theologian to socialism. Dorrien stresses, however, that Barth insisted that his decision for socialism was merely practical. Barth’s socialism was not religious but rather only a “practical political decision” (260), he confessed. Might this just be the way Barth found to maintain his theology uncontaminated by political preoccupations? Or may this point to an inability to theologize the political? As Dorrien described the Barthian revolt as the genesis of twentieth-century theology, I wonder if it is accurate to say that contemporary theology still hesitates to be fully political theology in light of Barth’s denial of considering socialism a theological problem. Did Barth confirm the basic premise of Schmitt’s political theology, namely, that politics and religion are definitely separate in the modern world?

More than a concern for a correct interpretation of Barth’s theology, my goal in raising these questions is to probe whether the socialist hope must come from and engender a political-theological commitment. Social Democracy in the Making seems to favor this position, particularly as it demonstrates great sympathy for the legacy of Christian socialism in Great Britain. At the same time, the British experiment also eschews theological debates, which once again may raise the question of its existence as political theology. In continental Europe, Dorrien’s narrative gestures toward Paul Tillich’s work as one that indeed articulates a socialist theological project. Dorrien sustains this by showing Tillich’s connections to the new readings of Marxist political theory at the Frankfurt School along with his expansive view of religion, culture, and politics. In this paradigm, Tillich could indicate that the struggle for justice is the “self-expression of the oppressed” and thus the embodiment of an ultimate concern. Dorrien summarizes Tillich’s position: “Nobody fights for justice lacking faith and ultimate concerns” (290). His endorsement of religious socialism included a rejection of the liberal and sometimes progressive understanding that religion is a “private” matter. Religion, for him, “was the depth dimension of life, the living out of the deepest wellspring of human being” (296).

In my view, this statement is one of the pillars to counter Schmitt’s legacy in political theology. One of its very promising outcomes is the identification of a lingering religious dimension within capitalism—one that ushers in the need for a theological critique of bourgeois society. This would also render the religious aspect of socialism an imperative. In the neo-Marxist tradition that begins to take shape at the Frankfurt School, this thesis may be found in Walter Benjamin’s studies of commodity fetishism.1 As Dorrien shows, Tillich was also drawn to Marx via this topic (278–79). Latin American liberationists assume this as the starting point of political theology and the project to build a theological critique of capitalism.2 In my own work, I have been suggesting how one can also trace this in the way Capital describes the capitalist mode of production achieves surplus-value by means of the exploitation of the worker’s living moments. Marx’s theorizations about the constitution of the working day engenders a death-dealing mode of temporality. Critical political theology, in this scenario, would entail the imagining and living out of alternative forms of temporality and of constituting the working day. Here the contribution of Christian socialism in Britain seems central, pacing its uninspiring technocratic ethos (402). Dorrien scrutinizes its ethical impetus: “The idea of socialism as ethically based, decentralized, economic democracy has deep roots in Britain through the cooperative traditions associated with Owens and Maurice” (9). Once again, I find in this a powerful opening into a socialist political-theological position. (It is worth mentioning, parenthetically, that Marxism did develop as an ethical tradition elsewhere, such as in Enrique Dussel’s creative appropriation of Marxist political economy and Levinasian ethics to form the Latin American tradition of liberation philosophy.)3

So, where shall a democratic socialist political theology go? Social Democracy in the Making does not intend to address this question, but it may provide some clues. For theologians like myself who tend to begin their thinking with the rise of liberation theologies in the 1960s, Dorrien offers historical perspective. And this is a true gift, always. Particularly as one witness to the ways in which democratic socialism developed significant anti-fascist forms of resistance. To the extent that Schmitt’s political theology quickly showed its totalitarian face, reclaiming the socialist story in political theology seems all the more important. Dorrien’s “implied judgement” does gain some explicit contours as he describes the best democratic socialism has to offer—in sum, pathways toward economic justice that open up opportunities to dismantle “white privilege, male privilege, and heterosexual privilege, repudiates Eurocentric presumptions, and upholds ethical commitments to freedom, equality, community, and ecological flourishing” (469). It is indispensable that this vision be affirmed. Social Democracy in the Making speaks of these demands as core to Christian socialism and, by doing so, it has the additional benefit of socializing new projects for social democracy. As talks of a “religious left” continue to pop up in public discourse, the time seems ripe to allow ourselves to be once again haunted by the specters of Christian socialism.

  1. Walter Benjamin, “Capitalism as Religion,” in Selected Writings of Walter Benjamin, ed. Michael W. Jennings and Marcus Bullock, trans. Chad Kautzer (Cambridge: Belknap of Harvard University Press, 1996); Walter Benjamin, The Arcades Project, trans. Rolf Tiedemann (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1999).

  2. See, for example, Franz J. Hinkelammert, The Ideological Weapons of Death: A Theological Critique of Capitalism, trans. Phillip Berryman (Maryknoll: Orbis, 1986); Franz J. Hinkelammert and Hugo Assmann, A Idolatria do Mercado: Ensaios Sobre Teologia e Economia (São Paulo: Vozes, 1989); Jung Mo Sung, Desire, Market, Religion (London: SCM, 2007).

  3. Enrique D. Dussel, Para Una Ética de La Liberación Latinoamericana, Filosofía (Buenos Aires: Siglo Veintiuno Argentina Editores, 1973); Enrique D. Dussel, Ethics of Liberation in the Age of Globalization and Exclusion, trans. Alejandro A. Vallega, Latin America Otherwise: Languages, Empires, Nations (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2013).

  • Gary Dorrien

    Gary Dorrien


    Response to Filipe Maia

    I have followed Filipe Maia’s emerging scholarship for years with admiration. He is carrying the work of Franz Hinkelammert and Enrique Dussel into the next generation, fashioning a theological critique of the domination and skewed temporality of financial capitalism. When he was a doctoral student at Harvard, Maia had a hard time finding more than a couple of faculty who could support his studies in Marxism and its relevance to the next generation of liberationist social ethics. Now that he is teaching at Boston University School of Theology, he is ensuring that the neo-Marxian legacy of Latin American liberation theology will not be lost.

    He is right that the international character of socialism kept breaking my grip on a four-stranded rope of socialism and religious socialism in Britain and Germany. “Socialism in one nation” is a notoriously non-socialist idea, and much of the democratic socialist story is bound up with the fate of the first three Internationals that came and went, plus two world wars in which Britain and Germany opposed each other. My discussion of German Social Democracy plunged immediately into Marxian theory and the coming of the German Social Democratic Party (SPD). The British tradition has no comparable theoretical legacy or connection to Continental Social Democratic parties, but British socialism stayed closer to its union ground, was religion-friendly and pragmatic, and eventually built a powerful labor party.

    Both of these streams of European socialism carried into the United States. German exiles from the Lassalle wing of German Social Democracy were the heart of the American Socialist Labor Party, founded in 1877 along with a smattering of native-born anarchists and Marxists. Christian socialism spread across the United States in the 1880s and 1890s, often taking a Populist form. Most of the US American Christian socialists who wrote books and defended the movement intellectually were versed in British socialism and a few knew the German tradition. Very soon after the Socialist Party was founded in 1901 it was a wondrous stew of radical democrats, neo-abolitionists, Marxists, Christians, Populists, feminists, trade unionists, industrial unionists, Single Taxers, anarcho-syndicalists, and Fabians both American-born and coming from every European nation and Russia.

    The original idea of socialism goes back to the 1820s, in France and England, where Charles Fourier and Robert Owen were the pioneers. The idea was to achieve the unrealized demands of the French Revolution, which never reached the working class. Instead of pitting workers against each other, a cooperative mode of production and exchange would allow them to work for each other. Socialism was about organizing society as a cooperative community. That could mean many different things, and soon did. No definition of socialism as economic collectivism, or state control of the economy, or any particular ownership scheme is common to the many traditions of socialist thought. But the Fourier/Owen origin grounds my idea of the democratic socialist core that Maia cites—an ethical passion for social justice and radical democratic community that pushes for economic democracy.

    Maia notes that Germany and Britain took very different paths to a similar end—revisionism. In a broad sense of the term, “revisionism” names the periodic necessity of revising the socialist idea to fit contemporary circumstances—a necessity from which no socialist movement is immune. In the historical sense of the term it names the challenge to so-called orthodox Marxism that Eduard Bernstein made in 1898 and the challenge to British Fabian orthodoxy that the Hugh Gaitskell / C.A.R. Crosland revisionists made in the mid-1950s. Bernstein rocked the SPD and was tagged as a pragmatic betrayer of Marxism, but most of his critique was taken for granted by the next generation of neo-Marxists, and eventually all the Continental Social Democratic parties adopted it, including, in 1959, the SPD.

    Social Democracy in the Making details how and why Social Democracy became a pale reflection of a radical idea, democratic socialism, but I do not disparage Social Democracy. Germany has co-determined enterprises with 50 percent worker representation, universal healthcare, state banks that support cooperatives, and free higher education. Sweden, Denmark, and Norway have high wages, strong unions, free education, monthly stipends to college students, up to 480 days of paid leave when a child is born or adopted, and vibrant economies that are one-fourth publicly owned. These achievements of Social Democracy exist in the United States only as fantasies. I wrote this book toward the end of attaining more Social Democratic decency in the United States, not to bury Social Democracy. At the same time, I believe that the struggle for economic democracy must be waged primarily through new organizations and movements.

    I am grateful that Maia perceptively raises the question of what the Christian socialist tradition and its religious socialist offshoots offer to the discussion of political theology. This is precisely what I am asking those who write about political theology to do. I appreciate equally that Maia interprets me correctly regarding the political theology enterprise in general and the Paul Tillich position in particular.

    I am sympathetic to the political theology enterprise and I believe that the Schmitt and reverse-Schmitt traditions of it have been tremendously fruitful. Schmitt taught that the distinction between friends and enemies is the key to politics and that all forms of political thinking are ways of renaming theological categories. The reverse-Schmitt procedure says that all theology is political, especially when it claims otherwise. Reverse-Schmitt political theology undergirds much of the most creative work in religious thought today, especially in neo-Marxist, Whiteheadian, Deleuzian, and liberationist forms of political theology. It tracks the displacement of God by the sovereignty of the modern state, which in some renderings gave way to the godly sovereignty of corporate neocolonialism, capitalist Empire.

    My critique of political theology rests wholly on my strenuous objection to the genealogy it nearly always assumes or expounds. Political theology has an incomparably better genealogy than the Schmitt story it tells. It astonishes me that scholars in political science and religion are content to say that political theology—their field of specialization—began with a Nazi legal theorist. The religious socialists who imagined a democratic socialist society and contributed to the making of Social Democracy were doing explicit political theology decades before Schmitt, Emanuel Hirsch, and Paul Althaus championed the atrocious idea of fascist theology.

    Christian socialism responded to the ravages of nineteenth-century capitalism. In Britain it was predominantly cooperative, progressive, social ethical, and pragmatic, fusing liberal and democratic elements. In Germany it had a stronger ideological and statist character as a consequence of yearning for, and then defending, a unified German state. In both of these national contexts and the traditions they inspired in other nations, Christian socialism imagined a cooperative commonwealth that replaced capitalism with a political economy geared to the common good. It paved the way to all liberation theologies that make the struggles of oppressed peoples the subject of redemption.

    Barth and Tillich are exceedingly complex. One cannot tease out their views on religious socialism apart from their theologies, so I ran long on Barth and Tillich. Barth is often caricatured in this area in ways that must be corrected. Maia is right that I favor Tillich because he carried through the conviction that theology has to be about everything and he formulated the most sophisticated theory of religious socialism ever propounded by a theologian. Barth later regretted that he took a “moratorium” from the sociopolitical struggle, as he put it, for the entire 1920s. But his narrow conception of theology rationalized this outcome at the time, and Barth’s purely practical concept of socialism had two truncating outcomes. It restricted what he said about socialism theologically, reducing the decision for socialism to a practical political preference. And it yielded discussions of sociopolitical issues that lacked a socialist analysis exactly where distinctly socialist arguments were needed. Barth’s political commentary operated at the level of intelligent bourgeois newspaper editorials.

    This was not true of Tillich in the 1920s and early ’30s. Tillich made an advance on the Christian socialism of the previous generation by absorbing the neo-Marxian social criticism of the Frankfurt School and by conceiving religious socialism in ecumenical terms transcending Christianity. He grasped that the best part of Marxism was Marx’s critique of commodity fetishism. Capitalism strips nature of its sacramental power by commodifying all existence. The more a thing becomes a commodity, the less living power it possesses. The sacramental relationship to nature provides a brake on natural human desires for pleasure and domination. Capitalism, Tillich argued, eliminates the brake. Anything that the subjective will to power or desire for dominance takes from nature, it loses for itself.

    Some of my objections to Barth apply to Tillich, who never grappled seriously with Marxian economic theory, relying on his friend Adolph Lowe for spotty economic analysis, and who opted out of the struggle for social justice in his later career. But Maia points to the two crucial contributions of Tillich to political theology. Tillich refashioned the Marxian critique of commodity fetishism, prefiguring the starting point of Latin American liberationist political theology. And he was willing to tell his Frankfurt School audiences that they were wrong to consign religion to museums.

    The Frankfurt Institute made a crucial breakthrough by contending that orthodox Marxism over-relied on a base-superstructure reductionism that screened out existential and cultural factors. Marxism was a magnificent tradition of social criticism needing to be saved from scholastics determined to make it small and manageable. I love the mental image of Tillich imploring the Frankfurt Marxists not to repress religious questions. Socialism, he said, is the self-expression of the oppressed, providing meaning for subjected people, and meaning is ultimately religious, pointing to the Unconditioned that transcends all specific contexts. A person’s religion is whatever concerns her ultimately. Socialism is incomprehensible without its religious dimension. Tillich said it so emphatically that gatekeeper historians of the Frankfurt School marginalized his role in the Frankfurt Institute.

Catherine Keller


Democratic Socialism as a Radical, Compelling, Realistic, and Real Option

The most important point I can make about reading this book is—yes, you can. Do not be cowed by the size. Tell yourself you only need to skim the opening chapter, “Christian Socialism in Social Democracy.” It offers a stunningly illumining map of the historical landscape of social democracy. Quickly you realize the immense force, complexity, and relevance of the volatile throbs of Christianity with and against socialism, so different in England, Germany, and the United States. Though Dorrien’s book on American religious socialism, building on his prior volumes on the Social Gospel white and Black, is still to come (with typically unfathomable speed), you realize early in this one how those of us enmeshed in US progressive Christian circles are oddly more heir to the effects of democratic socialism than are most European theological colleagues. This despite the fact that it is here, not Europe, where “socialism” has meant the kiss of political death for over half a century. And if that chapter is all you read, you will be grateful. But like me you will likely be tricked into reading the whole book, gripped by Dorrien’s ability to narrate an inordinate richness of history. For this is no moment—no year—in history to be ignorantly utopian or numbingly compromising, carelessly catastrophist or dismissively pragmatic, in our relation to “socialism,” indeed even to “social justice.”

What we learn from this book is first of all that socialism is from the start inseparably and contentiously linked with democracy, not only in formal “social democracy” and “democratic socialism,” but also in indelible strands of Marx and of Marxism, which along with most socialism swiftly named as betrayal the Bolshevik/Leninist/Stalinist adaption of Marx’s tragic espousal of the “dictatorship of the proletariat.” And radicals I knew nothing of, like Eduard Bernstein, advanced Social Democracy in the nineteenth century, building on Marx and against the determinism of a Marxist orthodoxy that assumed capitalism was destroying itself. His “evolutionary socialism” presumed the irreducible importance of personality, personal freedom, community as crucial to revolution; and that “democracy was the means and the end of socialist struggle: ‘It is a weapon in the struggle for socialism, and it is the form in which socialism will be realized” (169). Does such radically democratic orientation of socialism to the “socius” of cooperation provide needed ancestral support (not dogma) for any plausible struggle for justice—and against ecological and social catastrophe—in the confused United States today, where a class-based movement has no chance of prevailing without the solidarity of race, gender, and sex movements for equality?

Dorrien’s narrative lends historical depth to not only democratic but Marxist resistance to Marxist orthodoxy and its fatal apocalypticism. Is it not thereby channeling the still living possibility of a radically democratic r/evolution? If in England the Labour Party and in Germany the SPD “went on to become so deeply integrated into welfare state capitalism that it was hard to see democratic socialist aspiration in either of them,” nonetheless forms of “guild socialist and revisionist traditions have been the most creative in exploring forms of socialization besides nationalization, with patchy records of stubborn persistence” (468–69). Does this “guild” focus also bring to the fore a history of social movements in distinction from—but not necessarily contradiction to—party politics? It lets Dorrien insist upon the ongoing creative tension of his guiding perspective: “Every Social Democratic party is a pale reflection of a founding vision and an obstacle to remembering that democratic socialism is a radical idea” (1). In a United States where any language of social democracy has long counted as radical among most Democrats, can we channel that “stubborn persistence” into building a complex coalition rather than fragmenting into in-group purities? Perhaps calling for complexity rather than compromise among democratic differences holds out some pragmatic possibility for us here now?

Dorrien’s tome demonstrates how strong, deep, and differentiated is the history of religious socialism and of differently named offshoots that continue to hold Christianity accountable to the social ethics of the gospels. And he brings to light the vibrant socialist movement in England captured especially and, to me at least, surprisingly (no doubt due to an oversimplified sense of Anglican class status) in Anglocatholic forms, in relation to the secular but not anti-religious Fabians. But it is Dorrien’s account of the history of German religious socialism that may prove particularly, indeed painfully, revealing for those of us rooted in one way or another in German Protestant theology.

I knew the obvious, that the Protestant theology of the twentieth century grew out of German churches and universities disturbingly contaminated by nationalism and then fascism; that the towering figures of Barth and Tillich never succumbed to that trend. They responded to it in theologically incompatible but equally socialist ways. But backing up a bit, to the late nineteenth century, with Dorrien: I had hardly heard of the prophetic Christian activists Kutter and Radaz, figures monumentally important in early German-language religious socialism for their divergent and potent public leadership, ministry, refusal of academic absorption. Kutter recognized the mutual hostility of Christians and socialists in Germany as much deeper than in England or the United States. So he countered that “socialism was a secular parable of the kingdom” (223) and of course for their influence on the young “red pastor of Safenwill.” I did presume that Barth’s later leadership in the Confessing Church and Barmen saved the honor of the Protestant legacy; that Tillich, outspoken in his religious socialism, may not have survived 1933 without Union Seminary’s invitation.

I further presumed, however, in my dogmatic resistance to Barth’s christomonist patriarchal orthodoxy, that the Nazi sellout by one or two of his liberal Christian professors gave him the excuse he needed to crusade against the theological reception of liberalism/contextualism/pluralism/philosophy. So Dorrien’s account shook me in its historiography of the horrifying extent of the scholarly Protestant acceptance of nationalism and then fascism. This was not just a matter of congregational populism and the standard solidarity of war, nor of a tradition like our Christian right of religio-political reaction. Certainly, the late German achievement of nation-state status pertains. The young, Swiss Barth witnessed in dismay the almost total embrace of the First World War. But then after the evident catastrophe of the first war, he watched barely a decade later, the majority of theologians, including most of the liberals, identify with the new Nazi ideology of the Volk. Here Dorrien drills down into the liberal tradition that flows famously from Ritschl through Troeltsch and Harnack. This is the tradition that funds all of our liberal/progressive theology of self-critical attention to the social context of religion and thus the relativization of scriptural or traditional authority. And its social context was the German nation. So “the Ritschlian School signed up for opposing Social Democracy, defending Bismarck’s welfare state, boosting the German army, and thwarting radical Christian socialism. It provided a theological basis for bourgeois civil religion, usually called Culture Protestantism” (21). Harnack in the ’20s already took the opportunity “to expunge the Bible of the so-called Old Testament,” as the work of a religion inferior to Christianity, the mere “law and history of the Jew.” A liberal Christian theology of nationalism—and soon of fascism: social context! So I wept a tear or two of self-contradicting respect for Barth’s turn to theological antiliberalism—even as he remained a socialist (but quietly, and shunned religious socialism) for the rest of his life.

Yet an orthodox and even now so widely honored Lutheran such as Paul Althaus soon joined Emmanuel Hirsch, Harnack’s student, in the fascist follow-up, to teach “a purified Aryan religion stripped of Jewish everything” (258). Jesus was no Jew but an Aryan. The Deutsche Kirche—that quickly absorbed two-thirds of German Protestants and their clergy—made the Aryan Jesus their white Lord. Rade, a dissenting liberal, “observed dolefully in December 1930 that approximately 90 percent of the Protestant theologians at North German universities ‘appear at lectures with the National Socialist Party badge’” (27). This is three years before Hitler’s ascension; there is no excuse here of self-protection. The point of such historiography is not to demonize Germans. But is it in part to witness to the possibility that unexpected swathes of a culture may swing with a violent “populist” nationalism?

The ever nondogmatic genius of Dorrien’s analysis does not permit him to settle for Barth’s own blame-philosophy-proclaim-gospel method. Dorrien’s theological inclination, with great nuance in its critical appreciation of German idealism, hovers closer to Tillich’s. And not coincidentally, Tillich ardently and publicly spoke and wrote against fascism and for socialism. Dorrien gently regrets that neither—Barth due to his binarist faith vs. world (and vs. “religion”) solution, Tillich in gratitude to postwar US hospitality—in their major work persist with any language of social democracy/democratic socialism. Indeed, Dorrien has never supported any simple radical/progressive vs. liberal account of modern theology. He has already shown voluminously, with particular attention to the US legacy, that an honestly progressive Christianity cannot exist without the democratic impulse and its liberal heritage, even as it must liberate itself from its own reactionary twists into racist nationalisms or their apparent opposite, global neoliberalism. Dorrien’s analytic help will be urgently welcome vis-à-vis a rapidly shifting politics in which the critique of global capitalism—with its strong chorus of progressive anti-imperialism—is being coopted by right-wing nationalists.

When Barth’s second edition of The Epistle to the Romans announced the “death rattle of the churches,” he proclaimed the gospel message as “the fire alarm of a coming new world.” I wonder how Dorrien would interpret this apocalypse in relation to the Marxist apocalypse, on the one hand; and to an anti-mystical version of apophatic mysticism, on the other, where faith is “always a leap into the darkness of the unknown.” I ask this question less for the sake of theological history than of theological future: s’il y en a? Does Barth’s early eschatology prophesy more than the unbearable yet to come in his lifetime? As a member of a denomination about to go up in flames, of a species threatening its own habitat with overheating, and in a land of enflamed white nationalism, I covet Dorrien’s non-histrionic reading of this uncanny ninety-nine-year loop. My Political Theology of the Earth, published just a couple months before Social Democracy in the Making (and one-fourth the length, winkwink), is organized as a meditation on that possible triple apocalypse of theology/earth/politics.

So, let me note that a couple of paragraphs early in Dorrien’s work so firmly slams the door on the current use of the nomenclature of “political theology” that I wondered if I should even knock. I am guilty of referencing the largely nontheological and Continental precipitators (Agamben especially) who themselves reference the Nazi legal theorist Carl Schmitt. Yet I agree with Dorrien that “much creative thought, especially in Neo-Marxist, Whiteheadian, Deleuzian, and liberationist forms of political theology” performs the “reverse-Schmitt procedure” that he decries (3). But I would only join the repudiation of that procedure inasmuch as any one of them were actually claiming that political theology begins with Schmitt’s Political Theology—or even with his mockery of the anarchist Bakunin’s coining of “political theology” in mockery of those very religious socialists Dorrien treats with such respect. Dorrien’s book helps to assure that word spreads through the burgeoning multifaceted public of “political theology” as to how richly, problematically, often progressively, ever complicatedly, political theology has been. It spread in waves of a particularly vibrant, prophetically gifted, tragically constrained movement of Christian socialism mingling with social democracy during the period of Dorrien’s analysis.

In conclusion, as to the conclusion of Social Democracy in the Making. There isn’t one. It stops suddenly with the discussion of the British socialist Cole (another new hero for me), with his repudiation of Marxian scholasticism in favor of a rigorous social justice driven by and to “fellowship, genuine community.” “Fellowship does not count heads, or, if it does, it counts everyone as more than one—in fact, as infinite” (473). He was no Christian, but this sense of one in and as boundless multiplicity satisfies my theological anthropology. I suspect Dorrien ends here, without any recap of the book, without the expected forward-looking vision, because a darkness of the unknown—apocalyptic or apophatic—lies upon the present future. But also because he was already writing the sequel. More than one . . .

“Somebody,” Dorrien writes of Cole, “had to show that democratic socialism was radical, compelling, realistic, and a real option, with or without religious compensations.” As we may now say of Gary Dorrien.

  • Gary Dorrien

    Gary Dorrien


    Response to Catherine Keller

    Catherine Keller is our preeminent theologian for reasons that are amply displayed in her Syndicate reflection. In Cloud of the Impossible she tracked the enfolding and unfolding relation of everything to everything with Kelleresque theopoetic brilliance. More recently she has marshaled the resources of political theology to reflect on the eco-apocalypse impinging upon us. Keller writes thick, eloquent, theological descriptions of an entangled world in which things fold together from the inside out, struggling not to choke on human waste. I am deeply grateful that my opening table-setting chapter lured her into reading the whole book. Two years ago she cautioned me that diving this deeply into a historical subject must be justified. I don’t know if I managed to justify it, but her voice was in my head as I finished the book.

    This happened to me once previously, as Keller was my chief sounding board when I wrote Kantian Reason and Hegelian Spirit. I told her I was going to make a case for the central importance of post-Kantian idealism in modern theology. She blanched with concern for me. “I-deal-ism,” she said slowly, trying to come up with a word of encouragement. “Are you sure you can’t call it something else?”

    Her response in this forum underscores the “democratic” in democratic socialism and the fact that democratic socialists made no claim to adding something to socialism or to changing it when they named themselves. The founding democratic socialists championed the historic socialist claim that socialism is intrinsically democratic. Some pre-socialists and early socialists, to be sure, were pre-democratic, notably the French paternalists Francois-Noël Babeuf and Henri de Saint-Simon and the British Anglican paternalists Frederick Denison Maurice and Charles Kingsley. The earliest glimmer of socialism was the dream of a cooperative community and the conviction that a good society doesn’t allow anyone to live off the labor of others.

    But socialism and political democracy arose together in the nineteenth century and not coincidentally. The founders of Social Democracy believed that capitalism is antagonistic toward democracy. Some claimed that a proletarian victory had to be achieved before democracy would be possible; others said that socialists had to be resolutely democratic and supportive of liberal rights on the way to achieving socialism; others said the sequence depended on circumstances. Orthodox Marxists contended that existing democracy was a bourgeois fraud and real democracy would emerge only from a proletarian revolution, after which there would be no need of a state. For a socialist to lionize democracy as the best road to socialism was ridiculous. Democracy would come by making the state irrelevant, as Marxists believed, or by smashing the state, as anarchists believed.

    Democratic socialists refused to subordinate democracy and its reform causes to a catastrophe vision of deliverance or the demands of a leftwing dictatorship. Bernstein and his followers insisted that this was a Marxian conviction; they were not going to be drummed out of Marxism for being principled democrats. Others felt no need to call themselves Marxists; in Britain the Marxian tradition was a tiny reed anyway. Both groups registered a judgment about the history of socialism in naming themselves, though some initially resisted the name for the same reason that Walter Rauschenbusch resisted the term “Social Gospel.” The gospel is inherently social; why should he concede that some other gospel exists? But clearly it did, requiring a self-conscious name, analogously to “democratic socialist.”

    Keller asks whether the guild socialist and other decentralized traditions of socialism relativized the centrality of party politics and political contention. Certainly this was and is constitutive in the dream of cooperative socialism, guild socialism, anarcho-syndicalism, Council Marxism, and pluralistic economic democracy. Almost every socialist tradition has in its DNA the dream of a social transformation that makes the state unnecessary. The Fabian tradition in England and the Lassalle tradition in Germany do not have it; both were statist forms of socialism from the beginning. In all other historic socialist traditions preceding the consolidation of Swedish-type Social Democracy, the state is very problematic at best and politicking for state power is secondary business at best. A great deal of socialist organizing cutting across various forms of socialist ideology puts the primary emphasis on building worker councils, peoples’ councils, guilds, soviets, decentralized forms of socialization, and the like.

    The movement for guild socialism in Britain is a landmark example. Guild socialism was a blend of syndicalism, Fabian theory, Christian socialism, and nostalgic regret that capitalism destroyed the artisan guilds. Syndicalism, the idea that unions should run the economy and whatever government might exist in a revolutionary society, had a rich history in French labor unions and a marginal status in British unions, which did not like the Syndical rhetoric of violent overthrow. Guild socialists played down the Syndical fantasy of One Big Strike. S. G. Hobson, dissident Fabians A. R. Orage, G. D. H. Cole, Holbrook Jackson, and William Mellor, and Anglican socialists Conrad Noel, Maurice B. Reckitt, A. J. Penty, and young R. H. Tawney said that socialism should be about worker self-determination, not building a collectivist government. The productive life of the nation should be organized and operated by self-governing democratic organizations embracing all workers in every industry and service. These National Guilds would emerge from the existing union movement. The guilds would organize industry, but not own it. They would be owned by the state, which provided the capital, while the guilds produced the goods.

    The guild socialist movement fired the radical wing of the Labour Party during World War I and made Britain seem less exceptional. It was variously for and against the war, but agreed that the real war was against capitalism. The guild socialists wrote a profusion of books, campaigned in churches and trade unions, and founded a National Guilds League that was funded by the Labour Party. Now even British socialists fought over worker self-government versus state socialism. Cole, Reckitt, and S. G. Hobson were the guild ringleaders, writing wonky policy books and spirited propaganda until the economy crashed in the early 1920s, the guild movement lost its financial basis in the party, fear of Soviet Communism gripped the political class, and the season for exotic experiments ended. Most of the guild socialists retreated to normal Labour Party politics, as defined by the constitution that Sidney Webb wrote for the party in 1918: full employment and a living wage, common ownership of industry, progressive taxation, and surplus spending for the common good.

    The Webbs joined the Labour Party in 1914 to provide the policy guidance they believed it sorely needed. Clause Four of Sidney Webb’s constitution, demanding common ownership of the means of production, distribution, and exchange, defined the Labour Party for decades. It did not say that socialization means nationalization. Clause Four was consistent with guild socialism, worker ownership, consumer cooperatives, municipal ownership, competitive public enterprises, and mixed forms of these models. But nationalization was popular in 1918, and demanded for the coalmines and railways. To many, including Webb, nationalization was the only mode of socialization that mattered. In common usage, “socialism” came to mean nationalization, notwithstanding that state socialism was the historical latecomer aside from Germany.

    Keller’s comments on the theologians Hermann Kutter, Leonhard Ragaz, Barth, and Tillich register important judgments about how we remember and teach this period of theology. Kutter told his Swiss and German Protestant readers, with quotable zingers, that the Social Democracy they so feared and loathed was the hammer of God. I have long identified with Ragaz, which may have caused me to pull back too much in discussing him. The existence of Ragaz and other Christian, socialist, feminist, anti-racist anti-imperialists has buoyed me for many years while interrogating a progressive Christian tradition that so often merely defended its privileges and rolled over for nationalism. Keller’s question about Barth’s eschatological death rattle / fire alarm is very apt. I believe that Barth was at his best in explicating this theme, which distinguished the first edition of his Epistle to the Romans from his famous second edition. Then Barth got a strong dose of stab-in-the-back nationalism from his new colleague at Göttingen, Hirsch. Yet Barth was nowhere near as perceptive or courageous as the revisionist Marxian atheist Bernstein about the “unbearable yet to come in his lifetime.” Bernstein trembled at what would come from the scapegoat story that German nationalists told themselves about their enemies within and without. He was willing to incur the wrath of German nationalist audiences and SPD audiences in trying to dissuade them from it. Barth and Tillich told the same story about why it took them so long to take the Nazi threat seriously. They respected Germany too much to take it seriously—until 1932.

    “Slamming the door” on current political theology nomenclature does not describe me, as I admire what has come of reverse-Schmitt political theology, especially by Keller. My objection is that it proceeds as though Christian socialism never happened. I greatly appreciate Keller’s statement that the actual backstory of political theology “spread in waves of a particularly vibrant, prophetically gifted, tragically restrained movement of Christian socialism mingling with social democracy.” As for my non-conclusion, Keller captures as well as a phrase can my sense of “a darkness of the unknown.” But even that puts it too propositionally, so I ended in ongoing midstream by evoking a stubborn atheist battler giving witness that democratic socialism is radical, compelling, realistic, and a real option, with or without religion.

Cynthia Moe-Lobeda


Democratic Socialism in the Making

Gary Dorrien’s book could contribute significantly to generating—for this turning point in human history1—a form of democratic and ecological socialism grounded in the wisdoms and mistakes of socialisms in their previous forms. Before exploring that contribution, I comment on the volume’s value to two sets of readers.

This text will have distinct but related value to two audiences who know that the current form of global capitalism is an engine of economic inequity and climate change, and who are eager for change toward economic practices and policies that lessen the gap between rich and poor and contribute to earth’s well-being, but who do not know paths for moving effectively in that direction. One audience is those Christians who: (1) mistakenly associate socialism primarily with Soviet-style state socialism and therefore dismiss it as antithetical to God, and (2) are not yet aware of the rich history of Christian socialism intermingled with other democratic socialist movements and with Social Democratic politics, and (3) are also unaware that many revered mothers and fathers of Christian faith identified themselves as socialists. For these readers Dorrien provides a rich, detailed, and insightful history of Christian socialisms intertwined with other forms of socialism, a history that includes strong theological critiques of capitalism as antithetical to the gospel and to democracy. This is important knowledge at a time when popular theological consciousness in the United States tends to misidentify capitalism as consistent with democracy and with Christianity. For these readers, the book could open the door to theologically grounded critique of capitalism, and to recognizing the value of socialisms for shaping economies that are more in line with God’s promise of life abundant for all and that do not exploit some people in order to accumulate great wealth for others.

As second audience is people who are aware of Christian socialism but are not aware of the multiplicities of democratic socialisms and Social Democracies and of the shifting and porous relationships between these two trajectories (including the role that each has played in the development of the other). Dorrien notes that “various schools of democratic socialism” are so divergent that they “do not agree on its defining meaning or goal” (4), and it is hard to find any particular element running throughout democratic socialisms. If there is one, he suggests, it is an “ethical passion for social justice and radical democratic community” where that radical democratic impulse includes economic life. Similarly he clarifies that, while at times “democratic socialism” and “Social Democracy” were interchangeable terms (22), in fact the relationship tween the two is highly varied depending in part on two primary factors. One was the extent to which Social Democratic politics gave up or supported movement toward economic democracy, and the other was the theory that Social Democrats held regarding how to move from capitalism to socialism and regarding the extent to which that move was possible. The sundry relationships between Social Democracy and democratic socialism were influenced also by: (1) national context, (2) historical moment, (3) the school of socialist thought and practice, (4) the school of Social Democratic thought and practice, and (5) the role and nature of Christian socialism in varied contexts. For readers unaware of these contextually formed complexities, overlaps, and divergences, this knowledge is a building block for conceptualizing a form of democratic socialism capable of addressing the current context. In proffering this historical knowledge, Dorrien conveys models upon which to build and mistakes to avoid.

Among both sets of readers, while the hunger for more equitable and ecological economies may be strong, the sense of not knowing how to get there or the subtle belief that getting there is not possible is endemic. This book—with its meticulously constructed political and intellectual genealogies of democratic socialisms and Social Democracies—offers guidance for forging pathways into a future that build on a past widely unknown in the theo-political imaginary of many US citizens who long for a more equitable economy.

A Question

What does Dorrien’s book contribute for this particular five-year period in human history—the period in which we could still make the radical economic changes necessary to overt the most ravaging degrees of climate catastrophe?

Response depends on what is presupposed about the current moral crisis of economic life. I presuppose that the currently dominant form of economic life—finance-driven global capitalism, otherwise known as the neoliberal global economy—has three related and devastating moral problems. It concentrates wealth, providing some with wealth in the billions while relegating vast numbers of people to abject poverty. By concentrating wealth, it also concentrates power, thus subordinating political power to private economic power and undercutting democracy. It requires and assumes economic practices and norms that the planet cannot sustain and that cause unacceptable levels of greenhouse gas emissions. In short, finance-driven global capitalism is anti-equity, anti-democratic, and anti-ecological; it is a threat to social equity, to democratic tendencies and trajectories, and to earth’s fragile life systems.

This analysis of dangers leads to two conclusions, one about geophysical reality and the other concerning morality. The geophysical reality—aside from any political or moral assessment—is that the corporate- and finance-driven global economy will change because earth as a biophysical system can no longer provide or provide for what it demands and requires:2

  • Unlimited growth in production of goods and services.
  • Unlimited “services” (required for unlimited growth) provided by earth. Those services include “soil formation and erosion control, pollination, climate and atmosphere regulation, biological control of pests and diseases,” and more.3
  • Unlimited “resources” (required for unlimited growth) provided by earth, such as oil, timber, minerals, breathable air, cultivable soil, air with a CO2 concentration of somewhere between 275 and 350 parts per million,4 oceans with a balanced pH factor, the ocean’s food chain, potable water, etc.
  • An unregulated market in which the most powerful players are economic entities having:
    • a mandate to maximize profit,
    • the legal and civil rights of a person,
    • limited liability,
    • the legal right and resources to achieve size larger than many nations,
    • no accountability to bodies politic, be they cities, states, nations, or other,
    • the right to privatize, own, and sell goods long considered public.
  • Freedom of individuals to do as they please with economic assets (including unlimited carbon emissions and speculative investment that may result in the economies of nations crashing).

Since earth can no longer provide or support these requirements of unregulated corporate- and finance-driven global capitalism, carrying on indefinitely with it is not an option.5 The option is something different. (Clearly that “something different” is not state socialism, which is yet another form of centralized economic power dedicated to growth and unaccountable to a democratic public.) The question is in what direction.

This leads to the moral conclusion. Morality grounded in Christian tradition calls for that change to be in three directions: ecological, equitable, and democratic. (By this I mean, in short terms, that the economy would be embedded in earth’s economy and thus carbon neutral, would reduce rather than continually enlarge the wealth gap, and would cultivate participatory and distributed economic power.) In the United States today this three-faceted direction is understood by some as the move to the “new economy.”

For those who seek change in these three intertwined directions, a paradox glares. Change in these directions is necessary. Yet it is impeded by a widespread assumption that reining in the power of global finance institutions and corporations—a requisite of change in these directions—is not possible. This contextual paradox shapes response to the question posed: What does Dorrien’s book contribute for this particular five-year period in human history—the period in which we could still make the radical economic changes necessary to overt the most ravaging degrees of climate catastrophe?

Response to the Question

The book contributes in two senses. First, it debunks two central myths that stand in the way of change toward the “new economy.” They are the myths that:

  1. Capitalism is inevitable; there is no viable alternative.
  2. Capitalism and democracy are consistent with each other, and socialism is inconsistent with democracy. (While this sounds absurd to those who have studied the relationship of capitalism to democracy and of socialism to democracy, this remains a pervasive myth in popular consciousness.)

A central moral task for the current crisis is to expose these two myths as indeed myths (or lies). The historical account provided in this book does so.

Second, the book provides clues for how to achieve change toward the new economy (more democratic, equitable, and ecological). One necessary ingredient of power for moving in that direction is knowledge of history. A historical trajectory of particular import is the history of movements in modernity toward economies committed to equity, democratic control, and—more recently—ecological sustainability. At the heart of that legacy, of course, are the varied streams of democratic socialism and Social Democracy. Dorrien’s astute and nuanced history and analysis of those trajectories, their intersections and divergences, and the role of Christianity in both is a treasure trove of clues to achieving change toward the “new economy.”

I articulate those clues as questions to which this book responds or could enable response. While space precludes my responding to all of these questions, I do begin responses to the last two of them, grounding my responses in Dorrien’s text.

  • One clue flows from Dorrien’s portrayal of the ease and frequency with which Social Democratic parties and impulses abandoned the quest for and commitment to democratic socialism with economic democracy at its heart. What forces led to that abandonment and how are those forces potent today?
  • Resistance to finance-driven global capitalism today focuses on building local and regional small-scale alterative business, finance, and agricultural models. What can be learned from the guild and other cooperative movements of nineteenth-century England to guide the building of local and regional small-scale alternatives today?
  • A deeply sacramental form of Christianity (British Anglicanism) was at the heart of the Christian socialism that informed and enabled democratic socialism in England. What clues can be gained from that movement for the fomenting of Christian contributions to a new form of democratic socialism in the United States today?
  • “It took [Christianity and socialism] fused together in England . . . to produce the nation’s best anti-imperialist tradition.” “With very few exceptions Christian socialist leaders took for granted their ethical obligation to oppose all that went into British imperialism and came of it” (413). In contemporary US society, imperialism takes many forms, one of which is corporate and finance imperialism. Another is white supremacy. What theological and ecclesial factors enabled Christian socialist leaders in England to take “for granted their ethical obligation to oppose all that went into British imperialism and came of it”? How might those factors and forces take form in the United States to build the “ethical obligation to oppose” US imperialism today?
  • Yet another clue concerns the role of context. As Dorrien aptly demonstrates, context matters. What are the most salient contemporary contextual factors that call for forms of socialism distinct from previous forms? One contextual factor not present in the period covered in this text (roughly mid-19th to late mid-20th century) is the rise of neoliberalism (beginning in the 1970s) and its profound subordination of democratic political power to economic power. A second contextual factor is the dire urgency of the climate crisis.
  • What is the most fruitful way to frame the movement toward the new economy in the Unites States today? This question is vital. Whether that movement makes adequate headway to avert climate catastrophe in its most ravaging forms will depend upon whether it gains enough popular support and momentum, and that depends in part on how it is framed. While Dorrien does not explicitly make a constructive proposal for that framing, he does imply and briefly suggest one. He articulates it as a form of decentralized Social Democracy that holds itself to a standard of democratic socialism in that it fights for economic democracy. (Dorrien distinguishes “between Social Democratic strategies that still fight for economic democracy and those that give up trying” [468], and he distinguishes those presupposing an exclusively centralized national scale from those aimed at decentralized smaller scales. In both cases, he identifies with the latter. “I am against giving up but also against identifying economic democracy exclusively with national-scale strategies” [468].)

My point is this: Responding to these questions would provide clues for how to move toward the new economy (more democratic, equitable, and ecological).

A Constructive Suggestion

I differ from Dorrien slightly in response to the last question. I am not sure why he frames the way forward as Social Democracy, given that (as he writes): (1) the United States lacks a Social Democratic tradition (x), (2) currently “in Europe . . . many [Social Democratic parties] are so integrated into the establishment that their socialist pasts are invisible” (x), and (3) “today the democratic socialist streams in every European Social Democratic party are outnumbered by mainstreams that relinquished the goal of economic democracy long ago” (xii).

It seems more fruitful to frame the way forward as democratic socialism in the form that encourages “decentralized, economic democracy” (9–10). This means a form of economic democracy that includes not only national-scale strategies but also expands the small-scale local or regional “cooperative, public bank, and social market sectors” and “mixes various modes of social ownership” (469). Said differently, while the book articulates itself as tracking “the making” of Social Democracy in Germany and Britain, I believe that its constructive impact is not to argue for the continued “making of” Social Democracy but rather for the development of (“making of”) democratic socialism that is ethically based with decentralized economic democracy at its “heart” (468). As I read Dorrien, his bias is toward a “fully democratic society” (1) in which the demos (the people) control both the economy and the government. It seems to me that the title would better be “Democratic Socialism(s) in the Making,” with the history and contemporary dynamics of Social Democracy as a central part of that story.

Perhaps Dorrien prefers the language of Social Democracy for his title and for his framing of the way forward because Social Democracy is a more politically viable label in the contemporary Unites States context than is democratic socialism. This may be the case. Yet, perhaps not. Rising numbers of people are articulating the call to socialism as humanistic socialism, or even spiritual socialism. If that is the case then the framing of socialism as democratic and as consistent with values such as equity, democracy, and justice—claimed historically by the US ethos—and using the language of democratic socialism to do so may be a viable political move.

Efforts to bring economic change by appealing to democratic socialism would be strengthened by arguing that it is particularly well suited to confront the two contextual factors noted above—neoliberalism that subordinates political power in its best sense to economic powers, and climate catastrophe driven by unfettered capitalism. A form of democratic ecological socialism counters both of these factors. Its public credibility would depend upon making clear that democracy depends upon both accountable power and shared power. Both are far more possible when economic structures (business, banks, finance institutions) are small-scale, local/regional, beholden to a triple bottom line (ecological, social-justice, and financial), and owned by stakeholders rather than only by shareholders.

In short, it seems to me that this book offers key resources for moving toward the new economy—economies at local and national levels that are structured to be ecological, equitable, and democratic. Those resources include debunking the two potent myths noted above, and clues derived from the aforementioned list of questions. These questions flow from the historical legacy recounted and analyzed in Gary Dorrien’s extraordinary and invaluable account of a past that could do what the past should do—enable a more just, compassionate, and ecologically sane future.

  1. By “turning point” I mean the few remaining years in which we could still avert the worst degrees of climate disaster.

  2. This list and the paragraph following it are taken from Cynthia Moe-Lobeda, Resisting Structural Evil: Love as Ecological-Economic Vocation (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2013).

  3. “Janet Abramowitz, “Putting a Value on Nature’s ‘Free’ Services,” World Watch Magazine, Jan/Feb 1998, 14–15.

  4. “Parts per million” refers to the ratio of carbon dioxide molecules to all molecules in the atmosphere.

  5. Historically the question has been, “Can capitalism as we know it change substantively?” The question no longer pertains, because capitalism as we know it cannot not change. The question has become, “In what direction? And by whose directions?”

  • Gary Dorrien

    Gary Dorrien


    Response to Cynthia Moe-Lobeda

    Cynthia Moe-Lobeda writes detailed, rich, astute works on Christian social ethics, notably Healing a Broken World and more recently, her landmark book Resisting Structural Evil, which I assign every year. Her Syndicate piece is very much like the books she writes, and it builds up to a conclusion that impales me. I shall begin with her conclusion because it is slightly wrong, but only because she understands me so well. There is no difference between us concerning economic democracy and the politics of democratic socialism. It only appears otherwise because of a title.

    My title for this book was Imagining Democratic Socialism. I held it in mind on every page that I wrote, and it perfectly captured my argument and narrative, with a forward-looking spirit. Just before the book went to press my publisher opted for a softer title fitting a history category. The title that came to be describes what most of the book is about; it is not misleading or inaccurate. But Moe-Lobeda is right about why the book’s perspective might have yielded a different title.

    Her opening summary about how the book addresses two sets of readers is acutely discerning. From there she plunges into our eco-apocalypse in social ethical style, asking a question about the book’s relevance to the moment and making a response to the question. I have one quibble. Moe-Lobeda says that those who have studied the capitalism-democracy, socialism-democracy relationships believe something very different from the “pervasive myth in popular consciousness.” I cannot say that I have found mere knowledge to make such a difference. I have debated think tank specialists and conservative academics that were very well armed with information purporting to confirm the regnant myth. Some thought my position was the “absurd” one. In this circumstance I’ve tried to steer the debate to enabling interlocutors such as Joseph Schumpeter, Louis Hartz, and Michael Sandel. My book works hard to show, as Moe-Lobeda says, that the prevailing mythology is not true. But I think we should not say that only one side of this debate is informed.

    The question of why Social Democratic parties yielded so much ground is a subject for multivolume treatment. The heart of the matter is that Social Democrats spent their political capital and exhausted themselves by creating the welfare states, pulling back from state socialism, and then defending the welfare states. In the late 1940s they were still committed to nationalization and central planning. But capitalism rebounded dramatically in the 1950s, undercutting the ways that Social Democrats appealed to working-class and middle-class voters. The SPD lost three successive elections, gradually accepting that asking middle-class people to vote for the Marxist party was not going to happen. Socialists responded by socializing consumption through income redistribution instead of promising to socialize production. Most Social Democratic parties conceded too much, no longer fighting for economic democracy of any kind, but they were right to pull back from state socialism. C. A. R. Crosland was singularly effective in persuading European Socialists to stop fixing on how many enterprises they aspired to nationalize.

    Then came the stagflation crisis of the 1970s, which cost Jimmy Carter his second term as president. The post-1946 economic boom ran out and the bill came due for years of farming and factory overproduction. Factories retooled for computerized production while coping with unsold inventories, the Organization of Petroleum-Exporting Companies (OPEC) pulled off an oil embargo, and standard Keynesian tools no longer flattened economic cycles to keep the economy on a steady growth course. Inflation was terrible because of concentrated industrial production and the OPEC embargo, and Carter dared not make it worse with Keynesian gas.

    Stagflation was confusing, new, structural, and miserable. Rational-choice Marxism had its heyday during this period, proposing to explain the combination of stagnation and inflation that blighted the 1970s. G. A. Cohen, John Roemer, Jon Elster, and Eric Olin Wright argued that welfare state capitalism features a structural conflict among capitalists, state managers, and workers in which each group rationally maximizes its material interests. State managers provide public services and impose regulations up to the point that capitalists allow, but capitalists have the upper hand because the legitimacy of the managers depends on the health of the economy. State power is exercised within class configurations that condition how it is exercised. Rational-choice Marxism explained much of the misery of the 1970s, and it was great for the academic careers of its proponents. It made Marxism “make sense,” as Elster put it, to orthodox economists and rational-choice social theorists. But it stripped Marxism of Marxian dialectic, describing a state manager’s self-interest as economic rationality.

    James O’Connor better explained the structural crisis by refashioning Marxian dialectic. He argued that the growth of the state sector is a cause of the expansion of monopoly capital and an effect of its expansion. The state sector causes monopoly industries to expand and the state expands as an effect of monopoly growth. As technology advances and production becomes specialized, big firms swallow small ones, creating an economy that is much more difficult to regulate, facilitate, support, clean up, and bail out than the economy of smaller enterprises it replaced. O’Connor argued that the state under welfare state capitalism performs two basic and often contradictory functions—sustaining or creating the conditions for profitable capital accumulation, and sustaining or creating the conditions for social harmony. He called the first function “accumulation” and the second “legitimization,” which corresponded with two kinds of expenditures, “social capital” and “social expenses,” which corresponded with the Marxian categories of social constant capital and social variable capital.

    As monopoly capital grows, so do social expenses. The more that social capital grows, so does the monopoly sector. The more the monopoly sector grows, the more the state expends on social expenses of production. O’Connor said this accumulation of social capital and social expenses is a contradictory process yielding the fiscal crisis of the state. The state that increasingly socializes capital costs does not appropriate the social surplus. Welfare state capitalism is about capitalists socializing their losses and keeping the profits, which yields a structural gap between state expenditures and revenues. Jürgen Habermas and German neo-Marxist Claus Offe developed similar accounts of the social costs of late capitalism, leaning on O’Connor.

    O’Connor painted a grim picture, contending that the organized working class is completely co-opted by capitalist ideology. A great deal is at stake, from an organizing standpoint, as to whether he was right or perhaps exaggerated. He was certainly right that the welfare state is an arena of struggle that is systematically biased in favor of monopoly capital. Today we are paying dearly for the fact that the US government paid the corporations to make the nation dependent on oil from Saudi Arabia. Since the same corporations controlled the natural gas, coal, and nuclear industries, they even got the government to subsidize them for not developing alternative technologies. The case for fatalistic resignation is awfully strong. The game is rigged and the welfare state is deeply implicated in it. But progressive unions exist, and the many groups that care about saving the planet and advancing economic democracy are coming together. Some of them are geared to the struggle for political power. Almost no big-scale anything that democratic socialists want can be achieved without mobilizing the unions and building backbone-network organizations demanding a green economy.

    BALLE, the Business Alliance for Living Local Economies, founded by Judy Wicks and Laury Hammel in 2001, helps small businesses work together to transform local economies into sustainable communities. It morphed out of the Social Venture Network and works to expand Social Venture localism to the national level by developing healthy ecosystems. BALLE brings together company founders, private investors, and social entrepreneurs who are committed to building a just and sustainable world through business. The National Cooperative Business Association and the Social Enterprise World Form are prominent examples of cooperative enterprises, community development groups, and hybrid social enterprises banding together to share their knowledge and resources. In the growing movement for debt resistance, there are too many organizations to name—the Debt Jubilee Coalition, Strike Debt, the Gulf Labor Coalition, and the Committee for the Abolition of Third World Debt, among others. We need a global grassroots environmental organization that really scales up, acquiring political muscle and pressuring institutions to divest from fossil fuels. is getting there, with organizers in 188 nations. We need all the groups that believe in economic democracy, the sustainable economy, the social economy, the solidarity economy, the sharing economy, the green economy, the collaborative economy, the circular economy, and the generative economy to work together through a network organization. The New Economy Coalition has been working on it since 2014, connecting over 160 organizations including the US Federation of Worker Cooperatives and YES! magazine.

    The Green New Deal is the most ambitious environmental proposal ever to get this much traction in national politics. This fact alone is more important than anything in its call for a ten-year transition to zero-emission electricity and eventually to zero-emission everything. The Green New Deal is built on an infrastructure investment plan and a jobs guarantee. It demands the eradication of fossil fuels and industrial meat, and the transformation of other industries. It recognizes that we must plan a just transition that develops local and regional transit networks, creates efficient housing, and changes the process of industrial production, all while learning to cope with the floods, heat waves, famines, and hurricanes wrought by climate change. The United States has under-invested in infrastructure, education, and green technology for decades. If we can spend trillions of taxpayer dollars bailing out megabanks, we ought to be able to create public banks that finance start-ups in green technology and provide financing for cooperatives that traditional banks spurn. Public banks can be financed by an economic stimulus package approved by Congress, or by claiming the good assets of banks seized by the government, or be established at the state level.

    I would not say that eco-socialist theology has to be sacramental any more than I would say that you have to affirm some religion to care about eco-justice. But I do think it helps in both cases. Anglo-Catholics dominated British Christian socialism because Anglo-Catholic congregations didn’t run to the suburbs, they drew young clerics into the lives of the urban poor, and they practiced a sacramental ministry radiating a sense of sacred beauty and cosmic order. To the Anglo-Catholics who founded the mainstay Christian Socialist organizations, the deep affinities between Anglo-Catholicism and socialism were obvious. They taught that cooperation is the moral law of the divine order; the church is supposed to be comprehensive and unifying, reflecting the beauty and goodness of the divine order; producer cooperatives are the economic basis of a good society; and socialism is an ethical/spiritual commitment to building a cooperative society.

    To them, Anglo-Catholic sociality and socialism folded together. What they couldn’t fathom was that Protestants tried to get by with individualism, sermons, and doctrine. Some of the leading Anglo-Catholic socialists were exemplary ecumenists, notably Charles Marson and Maurice Reckitt. But some were hopelessly prejudiced against Protestants, proud of it, and incapable of working in ecumenical coalitions. Stewart Headlam and Conrad Noel headed this group. They were great at forging alliances with atheists and non-Christians, but were too chauvinistic about their Anglo-Catholicism to work with any Christians not sharing their sacramental sensibility. I shudder at Headlam’s dogmatism in this area, but I acknowledge that Anglo-Catholic militancy was a source of strength for him, Noel, and others. They railed against racism, imperialism, militarism, and stodgy conservative churches. They ripped the bark off churchly decorum, believing that the gospel compelled them to call out ethical hypocrisy wherever they saw it.

    Very few US Americans of the same era were anywhere near as militantly anti-imperialist as Marson, Noel, Headlam, Charles Gore, Scott Holland, and other British Christian socialists. How to account for the difference? All Britons were schooled in the lore of the British Empire. The Christian socialists were steeped in a triumphal propaganda version of it regaling England’s mercantile colonization under the Stuarts and Cromwell; war victories against the Dutch, French, and Spanish in the seventeenth century; the acquisition of eastern North America, the St. Lawrence basin in Canada, numerous territories in the Caribbean, slave-trading outposts in Africa, commercial interests in India, and Disraeli’s incursions of the 1870s into Egypt, India, Afghanistan, and South Africa. This patriotic gore alienated those who became Christian socialist leaders. It drove them into socialism on Christian grounds. Some of them seethed against the “public” schools for the rest of their lives. They were strong anti-imperialists because their deepest convictions were ethical-religious and they lived in the belly of the beast. Some of them made bishop anyway, because that was England too. Lord Salisbury appointed Gore as Bishop of Worchester two weeks after Gore blistered Salisbury for the Boer War. England even gave refuge to Karl Marx.

Joerg Rieger


Socialism, Religion, and That Pesky Working Class

Even in the United States, socialism is no longer a dirty word for many, as recent surveys have shown. Still, confusion about the meaning of the term may never have been greater, and so gaining some clarity about the concept and its history is essential.

Gary Dorrien’s book Social Democracy in the Making: Political and Religious Roots of European Socialism introduces readers to some of the complexities of socialism. Those who think that socialism was somehow conjured up by Karl Marx or his followers will be surprised to learn that democratic socialism in Britain was not significantly shaped by Marxist thought for almost a century after its beginnings. Others who think that socialism is by nature antithetical to religion will benefit from learning how democratic socialism in Germany developed in a complicated relationship with religion in general and so-called mainline “social Christianity” in particular.

Note also that the complexity of socialism is not only a matter of ideas (where there is a lot of ground to cover) but of different historical developments. While focusing mostly on ideas, Dorrien’s book deals with some of these developments in Germany and Britain up until the 1960s because this is where social democratic traditions have the richest traditions (bracketing communist traditions), so we will have to develop the lessons for the United States from there.

Perhaps the biggest myth about socialism is that it would be undemocratic. From a socialist perspective the matter is reversed, however, as capitalist concentration of wealth and power at the top wreaks havoc with democracy and the agency of the masses. The current situation in the United States illustrates the problem. The dream of democratic socialism, as Dorrien reminds us, is “a fully democratized society in which the people control the economy and government, no group dominates any other, and every citizen is free, equal, and included” (1). The drivers in this process have been unions and social movements, cooperatives, and—often forgotten today—religious communities. Democratic socialism disagrees with Social Democracy about the primacy of parliamentary politics. Politics for democratic socialists, while not insignificant, is not in the lead—labor and social movements are.

To be sure, socialism shaped up differently in different locations: In England it was often pragmatic, non-ideological, open to religion and the middle class. In Germany, on the other hand, socialism tended to be more ideological, anti-religious, and proletarian (Dorrien’s terms, 4). It is this latter aspect—the connection of socialism to working people and their movements, broadly conceived—that I will use as the guide to my engagement with the material that follows. After all, one of the biggest differences between socialism and liberalism is the question of the agent, and it makes a difference whether working people or the middle class are the driving force.

Unlike in the United States, in both Britain and Germany there was no connection between socialism and liberalism, the latter of which remained elitist, without ties to a social gospel. German liberal theology and Culture Protestantism stayed firmly rooted in the middle class. Adolf von Harnack’s support for family, welfare, and opposition to class prejudice (137) exemplify the liberal position in support of the status quo, I would argue, being tone-deaf to the concerns of socialism. From a socialist perspective, to be sure, the task would not be seen as reducing class prejudice (in today’s language: celebrating the diversity of ruling class and working class) but as abandoning exploitative class relationships. Moreover, that in the United States support for welfare has been branded a socialist agenda just shows how much American readers still have to learn.

In Britain, Fabianism also displays some of these tensions, as the working class had a role to play in creating socialism, but intellectuals remained firmly in charge. Still, the Fabians were distinct from liberalism and Dorrien notes their challenges to the ruling class, including demands for minimum wage, for limited hours of work, for shifting tax from workers to the recipients of rent and interest, for welfare, and for political representation of all (78–79). Of course, even the more moderate socialist positions of Fabianism would be considered quite radical in the United States today. This shows how foreign robust discussions of socialism have become to us.

Religion was part of the socialist ethos in Britain, where prominent church leaders supported socialist values. Well-known Anglican bishops like Charles Gore and William Temple were influential socialists, and Gore considered socialism a modern expression of Christian ideas—the indictment of injustice that is found in the prophets (112–13). It would have been interesting to know more about connections to the broader labor movement, but there is a sense that religious socialism in Britain remains fairly moderate and never became too much of a threat to the establishment. After all, we should not forget that Gore was also chaplain to Queen Victoria and King Edward VII, and Temple was the Archbishop of Canterbury for the two final years of his life.

In Germany, religion was regarded with some suspicion in the socialist movements, even though Karl Kautsky, Friedrich Engels, and Rosa Luxemburg all argued that socialism mirrored the revolutionary spirit of the Jesus movement. Several German-speaking theologians exemplify the challenges and the potential of the relationship between socialism and religion. Hermann Kutter and Leonard Ragaz, the Swiss founders of religious socialism (222–23), embodied closer connections to labor and social movements than their British counterparts, one of the things that also distinguished them from mainline “social Christianity” that promoted welfare in their day. Both of them were influential on Karl Barth, with Ragaz being closer to politics and Social Democracy and Kutter being closer to the church and thus of greater interest to Barth.

Barth’s lifelong identity as Swiss socialist is now well known even in the United States, but the relationship between socialism and religion always remained complex for him. Dorrien reports on his resolve to keep the two separate (260), which created confusion for later Barthians who never quite figured out what to do with socialism. Barth’s position, I would add, makes little sense for those who have come to socialism or religion via ideas or ideology because it is intentionally unsystematic. It makes more sense, however, for those who are engaging with social and labor movements and therefore know the complexities of both religion and socialism firsthand. While Barth’s solidarity with working people in Safenwil is often mentioned, I would argue that the lessons need to be drawn out more, especially for US academics in the twenty-first century.

Another important development in the relation of socialism and religion was what might be called cultural Marxism, which Paul Tillich engaged during his German beginnings. Tillich, like most theologians ever since, did not care about economics much, yet his socialism was linked up with some affinity to the working class that faded away after he moved to the United States. Dorrien reports how in 1950 James Luther Adams published a piece by Tillich, written in 1929, titled “The Class Struggle and Religious Socialism,” against Tillich’s will, who feared it would ruin him in America (288). After coming to Union Theological Seminary, Tillich and Reinhold Niebuhr agreed in their own ways that socialism without a proletarian movement base was merely middle-class ethical idealism (310). One can only speculate why these theologians did not explore this base more—which did exist in the United States and which kept parts of the Social Gospel grounded, as we now know (see, for instance, Heath Carter, Union Made: Working People and the Rise of Social Christianity in Chicago [Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015]). Sadly, today even less awareness remains of these histories.

The rest of the story is quickly told. After World War II, Social Democracy in Europe—and especially in Germany—became more amenable to capitalism, building welfare programs and international institutions, and fighting Communism (409–10). Here, the shift from social movements to parliamentary politics came into its own. Getting lost in the process is not only a radical spirit and drive, but also the intersectional potential of socialism. In contrast to Social Democracy, Communist movements reached out to organized workers of color and other minorities, even in the United States and in the former colonies, where Social Democracy had no connections (411). This would be a story worth exploring further, as it demonstrates that intersectional solidarity is not wishful thinking but has a long history. Religious and even theological engagement is part of this story as well, even though not part of the academic establishment (see, for instance, David Burns, The Life and Death of the Radical Historical Jesus [Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013]).

In Germany, the Sozialdemokratische Partei Deutschlands (SPD) serves as example for this development away from the agency of working people and social movements toward middle-class parliamentarian politics, making peace with capitalism and attracting middle-class voters after World War II. To be sure, there are some gains as well, which are still unimaginable in the United States. One example is the successful push of the unions in the 1950s for codetermination—adding worker representatives to corporate boards (463)—although the boards continue to be chaired and dominated by shareholder representatives to this day.

In the end, can we still see the forest for the trees? What are the key elements in this discussion? The agency of working people is central. Dorrien gives a few pointers in this direction, noting toward the end of the book that “economic democracy is the heart of democratic socialism and the test of its ambition for social justice” (468). This includes expansion of cooperatives, public banks, and social market sectors, as well as the dismantling of white, male, and heterosexual privilege; ecological sensitivity can be considered part of it as well. Nevertheless, I would suggest that we need still more attention to what this economic democracy entails, especially in the halls of the theological academy.

At stake is not just whether we need to move forward via the agency of working people or politics or both, but how we analyze the fundamental problems. In what looks like a little side note, Dorrien hits on the relation of fair distribution and production (126). While much of the discussion today is focused on the fair distribution (and redistribution) of wealth—Marx used to call this “vulgar socialism”—the core of the problem with capitalism is with production. Dorrien understands the problem, despite some ambiguity about what he debatably terms Marx’s “dogmatic determinism,” “doctrine of proletarian dictatorship,” and “fixation on collective ownership wrongly identified socialism with a totalizing goal” (5), concluding that “Marxian theory is the most creative and sophisticated tradition of anticapitalist criticism ever devised” (114). The core of Marx’s analysis remains the question of production, who produces and who collects the profit (surplus), and other socialist movements picked it up. In other words, production and surplus shape distribution and maldistribution, and the latter cannot be resolved without the former. This is one reason, I would add, why the agency of working people is so crucial in overcoming capitalism: here is its energy and its heart, and here is where theologians might have to start investigating matters of the divine and the world again (for an initial effort, see Joerg Rieger and Rosemarie Henkel-Rieger, Unified We Are a Force: How Faith and Labor Can Overcome America’s Inequalities [Chalice, 2016, German translation 2019]).

When the agency of working people is taken into account—in all their intersectionality along the lines of race, ethnicity, gender, and sexuality—things might change. Instead of having to soft-pedal capitalist exploitation, socialism can follow through on what is most important: economic and political (and religious) democracy instead of totalitarianism, diversity instead of centralization, non-exploitative relationships, and even profit no longer has to be a dirty word. Instead of casting its lot with nonprofit corporations, which are often run just like for-profit corporations or worse, socialism can be built through worker cooperatives, which produce profit that benefits the members, the communities, and even the environment. Wouldn’t that match the ideals of many religious communities as well?

  • Gary Dorrien

    Gary Dorrien


    Response to Joerg Rieger

    I remember vividly when Joerg Rieger came along, first with Remember the Poor (1998) and his 1998 reader on Frederick Herzog, followed by God and the Excluded (2001). Finally we had a theologian who was deeply versed in political economics and able to repair the economic deficit in liberation theology! Rieger has been the model of an organic-intellectual theologian ever since, plunging into whatever forms of social justice activism are locally available to him and writing books that reflect and analyze these engagements. Beneath all his work about liberation theology, Herzog, marginality and exclusion, the financial crash of 2007–2008, empire, the Occupy phenomenon, and other subjects, Rieger is motivated by a gut level passion for economic justice.

    His belief in the neglected importance of class for theology and politics has burned like a fire within him for years. Marxist theory usually defines class in terms of a fundamental class-process of surplus production and appropriation. Today, Rick Wolff and Stephen Resnick ably represent this tradition. Rieger argues that class is primarily about the relationships that shape us, and it is defined by the respective positions that classes hold in the power grid of a society, not by mere strata. Our understanding of class needs to begin with the notion of relationship. It needs to inform our theology more deeply than liberation theologies have done. And we need to develop greater clarity about which relationships are most fundamental in a globalized world.

    Rieger contends that economic relations are crucially important and are shored up by processes of production. Production is at least as important as distribution in grasping what is at stake in the class issue. The classic socialist concern about who produces and who owns the means of production still matters, but Rieger adds that these terms must be defined more broadly than previously, so that ownership refers to decisive levels of control over means of production, not just property, and the worker category includes producers of knowledge, services, and entertainment, not merely manufactured goods.

    This argument is in my head from the numerous speaking platforms I have shared with Rieger and I agree entirely with it. On Barth’s socialism, Rieger puts it nicer than I did in my response to Filipe Maia on this point. “Intentionally unsystematic” is a nicer way of saying that he didn’t actually use a socialist analysis when he wrote about politics, though Rieger also means it in ways that are more favorable to Barth—Barth had an organic intellectual’s relationship to socialism, and he famously wrote systematic theology in an unsystematic fashion. As for Tillich not caring about economics, I don’t think that care is quite the point. Tillich never faced up to the hard work of learning economic theory. Here there was a daunting discipline and jargon to negotiate, and his expertise in Schelling’s objective idealism provided very limited access to it. To the extent that Tillich made economic theory arguments, they came from the Hegelian background to Marxism that he knew about. But even in this case, there is no evidence that Tillich ever tackled Marx’s Capital. Tillich relied on Adolph Lowe to protect him from committing economic howlers in print. I do not read Tillich’s critique of reductionist socialist economism as betraying an indifference to economic factors, though if I did not agree with it, perhaps I would!

    On the “union made” working-class roots of the social gospel that Tillich and Reinhold Niebuhr disregarded, Rieger compresses two different generational experiences. Heath Carter wrote about late nineteenth–century organizers and workers in Chicago, especially the Knights of Labor. The Knights ascended and crashed, both spectacularly, in the 1880s and early 1890s. They symbolize the dream of a radical US American industrial unionism lacking a color and gender bar that was not to be. In 1886 they had nearly a million members and seemed to be verging on something really great, but they got pulled into too many strikes, state militias began to attack them, the American Federation of Labor (AFL) was founded, and the Knights unraveled, losing their strongest unions to the AFL. Eugene Debs outgrew his training in craft unionism and risked a second run at industrial unionism, which was crushed too. The winning idea in US American unionism was the insular, racist, business craft unionism of the AFL. It had a Socialist flank that battled Samuel Gompers and subsequent AFL chiefs for decades. This Socialist flank of the AFL was the core of the Socialist Party before and after 1919, and for eight years it had a rival for union power within the party, the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW). But the IWW self-destructed much like the Knights, and in 1919 the meteor of Communism smashed into the Socialist Party, utterly blowing it apart. Afterwards the party was a mere shell.

    All of this had long played out by the time that Tillich and Niebuhr taught at Union. What is pertinent to Rieger’s point is that Tillich and Niebuhr lived through the spectacular revival of industrial unionism that was the Congress of Industrial Unions (CIO). A great many Communists and fewer Socialists organized the CIO unions. Niebuhr had close ties to anti-Communist AFL leaders; it cannot rightly be said that he lacked a relationship with the union movement of his time. As late as 1939, Niebuhr was a player in the militant left wing of the Socialist Party, and even his subsequent tack into the Democratic Party occurred through his leadership of the Union for Democratic Action—a union of anti-fascist, interventionist, anti-Communist Socialists and union leaders from ILGWU, the Amalgamated Clothing Workers, the American Federation of Teachers, the Socialist Party, and A. Philip Randolph (the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters). The Socialist and unionist struggle against Communism is the key to how this story turned out. That is, the politics of interventionist anti-Communist Socialism, a struggle long preceding the Cold War, is the answer to “why these theologians did not explore this base more.” Niebuhr was a major player in anti-Stalinist organizations that had very few black Americans in the room—Randolph notwithstanding—and that later expelled the Communists on the way to uniting the AFL and CIO.

    Mercifully the Cold War is over; now we classroom teachers struggle to convey to students how colossal and paralyzing it was. Take Communism out of the picture and the Socialist Party could have turned out very differently. The party was surging in 1919 despite being persecuted for opposing World War I and because of it. Meanwhile, the United States has never had the kind of union movement that supported the European Social Democratic parties during their heyday. The Socialist wing of the AFL pushed Gompers out of office only once, for one year; the IWW unraveled and crashed, being too anarchist to sustain actual union organizing; and the CIO merged with the AFL in 1955. Two of my longest-term friends are longtime radical union organizers. I admire them enormously, and am somewhat in awe of them. They do not speak so readily as Rieger about “the agency of working people.” But they exemplify to me what stubborn social justice persistence looks like.

    Economic democracy, as I conceive it, is about expanding the cooperative sector and extending the values of democracy into the economic system. It mixes worker, community, and mutual fund ownership models. I don’t believe that the factors of production trump everything. But I do believe that those who control the terms, amounts, and direction of credit play a huge role in determining the kind of society that the rest of us live in, and that Rieger is right about the centrality of the question of who produces and who collects the surplus. Economic democracy builds institutions that don’t belong wholly to the capitalist market or the state—producer and consumer cooperatives, community land trusts, and community finance corporations. But merely expanding the cooperative sector is not enough. Cooperatives prohibit non-working shareholders, so they attract less outside financing than capitalist firms. They are committed to keeping low-return firms in operation, so they stay in business even when they can’t pay competitive wages. They are committed to particular communities, so they are less mobile than corporate capital and labor. They smack of anti-capitalist bias, so banks don’t like them. They maximize net income per worker rather than profits, so they tend to favor capital-intensive investments over job creation.

    Most of these problems are virtues, and the problematic aspects can be mitigated with tax incentives. But we also need forms of social ownership that facilitate democratic capital formation, have a greater capacity for scaling up, and are more entrepreneurial. Public bank models vest the ownership of productive capital, either through a mutual funded holding company or an outright public bank. The holding companies lend capital to enterprises at market rates of interest and otherwise control the process of investment. Equity shareholders, the state, and/or other cooperatives own the holding companies or public banks. Mutual fund models contain a built-in system of wage restraints and facilitate new forms of capital formation. They have nothing to do with nationalization, and investors still seek the highest rate of return. This approach does not rest on idealistic notions about human nature and it does not need a blueprint.

    There is also a role for old-fashioned, large-scale publicly controlled companies in certain areas. All the other economic powers have them. In France, Spain, Belgium, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Turkey, and South Korea, governments run high-speed rail systems that make the United States look pathetic. Japan has the world’s largest public bank—Post Bank. Brazil has more than one hundred publicly owned or controlled enterprises, including major banks and utilities. The US American animus against public ownership looks increasingly strange as the rest of the world selectively uses it as one powerful tool among others.

Geoffrey Kurtz


What Religious Socialists Have Brought to Socialism

More Americans today than in many years are asking: “What does it mean to be a democratic socialist? What would it mean for me to be one?” Gary Dorrien’s new book is a response to such questions. It is a big book, telling the stories of British and German (that is, German-speaking) socialist movements and thinkers in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, but its core idea is simple: socialism’s rich intellectual diversity has been impoverished, its range and depth of thought diminished. Although secular and religious socialisms developed in dialog with one another, one half of that dialog—the religious socialist half—is largely absent from the awareness of socialists today. Dorrien’s book is an ambitious effort to recover lost legacies and alternative possibilities for today’s democratic socialists, in particular to restore religious socialism’s place within socialist conversations.

The Christian socialists whom Dorrien examines made distinctive contributions to socialist thought. Here is a cluster of four related themes that reappear often in their thinking. (It is an interesting question to what extent the characteristic concerns of Christian socialists have been shared by religious socialists more broadly. Nevertheless, in keeping with the historical specificity of Dorrien’s book, I will mostly refer here to Christian socialists.)

First, Christian socialists have typically seen socialism as a re-statement of an ancient impulse. Where secular socialists have often rooted their socialism in the modern quest for progress, confident that human efforts to willfully reshape the world proceed inevitably, Christian socialists have rooted their socialism in the perennial prophetic impulse to question projects of mastery. This feature of Christian socialism is so central as to be easily missed; it often remains implicit. But whether Christian socialists argue that socialist ideas echo Biblical teachings or whether they look instead to Christian liturgical and communal practices, they are claiming ancient antecedents for their politics.

Second, Christian socialists have offered a moral critique of capitalism. They have believed that the economic inequality generated by capitalism is a problem because it impedes authentic experiences of community. The moral core of socialism, they have thought, is an aspiration toward fellowship. When Swiss theologian Hermann Kutter proposed in 1908 that the temporary disruption of strikes leads toward stronger communities, or when the great Anglican socialist writer R.H. Tawney argued in his 1920 book The Acquisitive Society that economic activity should provide “the material foundation for a good social life,” each was suggesting that socialism should be based on a conception of the human person as a member of a community. They were also implying that the Christian tradition entails a substantive vision, or at least a sketch, of the sort of community fitting for human habitation.

Third, such ideas of fellowship have often led Christian socialists to embrace values like participation and cooperation. Seeking something more comprehensible and human-scaled than the modern state, Christian socialists have been among the most committed advocates of decentralized economic democracy. These are especially prominent themes among the British Christian socialists. F.D. Maurice, the most important early figure in the British Christian socialist tradition, supported consumer cooperatives; some of his followers looked also to worker cooperatives. In the early twentieth century, Anglican theologian J.N. Figgis became a major influence on “guild socialists” like G.D.H. Cole, and even after the guild socialist movement had faded, Anglican socialists like Tawney and William Temple retained a sympathy for the guild socialist dream of pluralistic, non-statist socialism.

Fourth, Christian socialists have attended to the problem of hope. They have recognized a need for something more sustaining than what Dorrien calls a “bare moral ideal,” a simple statement of values. Once I commit myself to values like fellowship and democratic community, how can I be sustained in such a commitment? Christian socialists have wrestled with that question openly and earnestly. The Christian socialists Dorrien writes about were all, in one way or another, confident in what he calls “the God of becoming who has always just begun to save the world;” they were also all members of a community constituted by practices of liturgy and remembrance. These two facts—of confidence and of membership—are not unrelated.

None of these four themes—the insufficiency of modern perspectives, the moral critique of capitalism, the preference for decentralization, the need for hope—have been the exclusive concern of Christian (or other religious) socialists. But it is probably not a coincidence that religious socialists have been among the most consistent voices for these concerns. This is why the near-absence of religious socialism from contemporary socialist thought matters. The characteristic concerns of Christian socialists are urgently important today. In the face of ecological catastrophe, the modern ideas of growth and progress are more dubious than ever. Christian moral critiques of capitalism anticipate—and in some ways remain more radical and provocative than—later attempts to break the left out of its narrow economism, like the mid-twentieth century critique of “mass culture,” the late twentieth century idea of “communitarianism,” or the newly-resurgent idea of “intersectional” social crises. As for the ideas of decentralization and participation: they seem harder to realize than ever, as our economic relationships become more global and our technologies less comprehensible—but for the same reasons, those ideas are increasingly important. And the problem of hope is most urgent of all these concerns: who today is able to believe in the forward march of history?

Alongside their commonalities, the British and German Christian socialist traditions that Dorrien examines—mostly Anglican and mostly Lutheran, respectively—have revealed distinct sensibilities. Dorrien makes clear that although these differences are partly the product of political institutions, they have theological roots as well.

Anglican socialists (especially Anglo-Catholic “sacramental socialists”) have tended to see the living community of the church as the model for socialist politics because they have seen something sacred in human sociality. Thinkers like F.D. Maurice, Stewart Headlam, and Charles Gore saw egalitarian community—like the community of baptism or of the Eucharist—as the proper site for a human relationship with the divine, and have also believed that the human encounter with the divine impels us toward egalitarian community. For Anglican socialists, fellowship is both our duty and our joy. Thus for many Anglican socialists, the problem with capitalism is in no small part that it imposes ugliness on the lives of the poor, that it impedes genuinely public or shared experiences of beauty.

The great German socialist theologians, in contrast, offered radical critiques of existing churchly communities. Christoph Friedrich Blumhardt, Leonard Ragaz, Karl Barth, and Paul Tillich all saw socialism not as an idea that flows from the life of the church but as one of the extra-ecclesial positions (the Bible itself being another) from which a critique of church life can be launched. Reading Dorrien’s account of the German Christian socialists, one sympathizes with their rage at the tepid faith of the everyday church, but one mourns their lack of delight in living forms of community and, thus, their inconsistent appreciation for decentralization and participation.

Whatever they may have missed, the German Christian socialists never forgot that politics always remains tough and unloving. Too often, the Anglican socialists turned away from political conflict, retreating into valuable but insufficient projects of education, service, and moral witness. Too often, they expected that a socialist movement could enact a beloved community. Their German counterparts—steeped as they were in the theologies of Martin Luther and St. Augustine—warned that politics, even socialist politics, is too worldly to do more than prepare the way for the in-breaking of a beloved community. Politics, their theological tradition teaches, can ready us for grace, but it can never itself be a means of grace.

A century ago, Max Weber warned that modern politics has been “disenchanted.” In their different ways, the Christian socialists Dorrien writes about pointed toward a re-enchantment of political life, a re-discovery of what Tillich called the “depth dimension” of the work that movements and parties and states do (or, better: are called to do) every day. They pointed, in other words, toward a sense of what it means to be “radical” different from the sense in which that word is often taken by people on the left: being radical not as unearthing the roots but as becoming rooted. But it matters that they did this in different ways. Dorrien refuses to offer his readers a synthesis of the British Christian socialists’ love of fellowship and the German Christian socialists’ realism about the limits of political life, let alone a synthesis of secular and religious socialisms. Instead, he places these traditions of thought side by side, allowing both their gaps and their overlaps to emerge. Dorrien invites his readers to simply sit with the tensions among the ideas whose stories he tells. In the end, this invitation may be the wisest feature of this wise and timely book.

  • Gary Dorrien

    Gary Dorrien


    Response to Geoffrey Kurtz

    Geoffrey Kurtz is the author of a splendid book on the great early twentieth–century French Socialist leader Jean Jaurès and is currently doing research on the realignment/de-alignment issue in late twentieth–century American democratic socialism. Jaurès was the only professionally trained political philosopher of his generation to become a Socialist leader, and realignment was the signature strategy of the Shachtmanite group that took over the Socialist Party in 1958. Basically, realignment was a strategy to change the Democratic Party by driving out the Dixiecrats. Shortly after it succeeded, the Socialists who pushed so hard for it split between an anti-Communist union faction that founded the neoconservative movement and the Michael Harrington progressives who founded the Democratic Socialist Organizing Committee. Harrington later regretted that he bet everything on realignment, because the two parties completely hollowed out anyway—“de-alignment.” I had not known of Kurtz’s work until he represented Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) at a forum on my book at Union Theological Seminary. There it turned out that this political scientist was most interested in how my book recovers the religious roots of European socialism. His reflection for Syndicate on what religious socialists have brought to socialism is a variation on the talk he gave at Union.

    Kurtz goes straight for four things that usually mark Christian socialism: a prophetic critique of domination, a moral critique of capitalism yielding a substantive vision of human community, an ethic of cooperation, and a language of hope. None of these themes belong only to the Christian socialist tradition, he says, but the fading of Christian socialism from socialist organizations and memory has yielded socialist traditions that are short on all four. He contrasts the British Anglo-Catholic ethos that prized the sacredness of human sociality with the German Lutheran and neo-Calvinist socialists for whom a biblical eschatological Word stood in judgment of the church. The British Anglicans were long on love of fellowship and the German Lutherans and neo-Calvinists were long on realism about the limits of political life. Kurtz points to a defining hazard or shortcoming on each side—churchy aversion to political conflict among the Anglicans, and a failure to nurture spiritual communities guided by a cooperative ethic among the Lutherans and neo-Calvinists.

    These broad strokes paint a recognizably true picture, allowing for the limits of such generalization and a bit of ideal typing. I am inclined to register more caveats on the British Anglican side than on the Germanic Lutheran/neo-Calvinist side, because British Anglican Socialism battled for political victories and power, making a substantial contribution to decades of real world British politics. British Christian Socialists railed against their nation’s imperialism and nationalism, and their Mother Church and British Commonwealth piety did not prevent them from raising up leaders who blasted the church. Headlam constantly attacked the church’s corruption and Establishment privilege. Gore, the leading Anglican Church figure of the early twentieth century, was utterly lacerating about the sins of the church. He said he hated, truly hated, the Church of England. German Christian socialism, on the other hand, made little impact on Social Democratic politics, except for Switzerland, and it raised up precious few consistently progressive figures—anti-racist, anti-war, anti-imperialist, feminist, and willing to criticize the church from the Left. There is nothing remotely comparable in German Christian socialism to the anti-imperialist militancy of Headlam, Gore, Marson, Noel, Holland, and their followers. What the German and Germanic Swiss did produce was brilliant theologizing. Modern theology, for decades, was a parade of German names, German concepts, and German scholarship.

    I am deeply grateful to Filipe Maia, Catherine Keller, Cynthia Moe-Lobeda, Joerg Rieger, and Geoffrey Kurtz for their highly astute and probing responses to my book, and to Aaron Stauffer for organizing this forum, and to Syndicate for publishing it. These Syndicate forums are in a class by themselves. Blessing and thanks to all.

Daniel Steinmetz-Jenkins


The New Socialism and Religion

We have all probably seen the recent polls indicating that more than half of America’s young people have a positive view of socialism. The success of the Bernie Sanders Campaign, the prospects of The Green New Deal, the rise of AOC, Jacobin Magazine and Bhaskar Sunkara’s, Socialist Manifesto are all indications of this. As the movement continues to develop it will be confronted by longstanding debates over socialism’s relationship to populism, nationalism and internationalism, and religion.

The first of these two — populism, nationalism and internationalism — has received significant attention over the last few years. The third, namely, religion, much less so, but this is beginning to change. Perhaps no book better demonstrates this than the recent publication of Martin Hägglund’s, This Life: Secular Faith and Spiritual Freedom, which could be construed as an attempt to provide democratic socialism with a new theoretical bases for the 21st century. If one were to base the turn to socialism on Hägglund’s book, they would have to conclude that socialism must be atheistic and secular to the core. Religious faith, according to Hägglund, prevents its adherents from seeing finite lives as ends in themselves since they believe in an afterlife, nirvana or the like, which trivializes existence in this life; in times when they act as if those finite lives do matter, Hägglund believes they are abandoning the precepts of religious faith in favor of secular faith. More charitably, we could say they are dialectically advancing from faith to rationalism.

Hägglund’s This Life is Teutonic in inspiration (Marx/Hegel) and if there is one major theme that runs throughout Gary Dorrien’s latest book, Social Democracy in the Making, it is that the German tradition of democratic socialism post-Ferdinand Lassalle, “wore its hostility to religion as a badge of honor.” The same kind of Left Hegelian hostility to the role religion might play in socialism is on display in Roberto Unger’s very powerful book, The Religion of the Future. Unger, drawing on nineteenth century German inspirations very similar to Hägglund’s, rejects all the world religions for being incompatible with his vision of democratic socialism. The problem is that they make peace with the existing order by accepting its political, economic and social institutions. And even if Christians, Jews, Muslims or Buddhists  aspired for something like Unger’s vision of socialism, they would have to undergo changes so radical that they would most likely no longer be recognized as Christianity, Judaism, Islam or Buddhism.

So there are plenty of powerful theorists today who remain steadfast in their commitment to a nineteenth century German way of seeing democratic socialism as being entirely incompatible with religious socialism. Should the new socialists embrace this path? There seems to be good historical precedent for why this view makes a lot of sense.  As Dorrien observes, in the run-up to World War I, Christian Socialism was rightfully recognized as being “a patsy for nationalism, militarism, cultural chauvinism, and slurs against the too-Jewish, too Marxian, too atheistic, and too-threatening SPD.” That Dorrien’s biggest exemplar of German Christian socialism, Paul Tillich, who had been exiled to the United States, desired to be reinstated at Frankfurt in 1934 by telling the Nazi government that his work provided National Socialism with theoretical inspiration is, indeed, revealing: “As the theoretician of Religious Socialism I have fought throughout the years against the dogmatic Marxism of the German labor movement, and thereby I have supplied a number of concepts to the National Socialist theoreticians” (301). Dorrien does not dwell much on the fact that the other great Christian socialist of this era, Karl Barth, had a remarkable number of students who became ardent Nazis. The theologian Paul Silas Peterson’s recent book provides a detailed theological and historical contextual analysis of the parallels between Barth’s dialectical theology and National Socialism.1 What are we to make of the fact that Barth is perhaps more popular today with conservative American Evangelical theologians than ever before?

And yet plenty of the new socialists are not at all hostile to religion with some of the leading ones being downright devout such as Elizabeth Bruenig and Dawn Foster. Here is where we find some socialists attempting to combine certain Marxists insights with a kind of religious or secular ethical imperative. Take, for instance, recent comments by the essayist Pankaj Mishra. “The current appeal of socialism reminds us, inevitably and soberingly, not only of the scale of its historical defeat, but also its inadequacies—its hubristic faith in human mastery over nature and its simple-minded view of individual desires and motivations.”2 He goes on to say that “the set of ideas that emerged in response to a widespread distress of the working classes preserved the ethical core of Christianity against the Social Darwinist ethos of industrial capitalism. Any weakening of its principles of compassion and solidarity were bound to lead to large-scale suffering, as can be witnessed in our own age, when capitalism, somewhat defanged after 1945 by social-welfarism in the west and protectionist economies elsewhere, again turned feral, devastating the environment as well as workers’ rights.”3 All of which leads Mishra to suggest that the new socialism must entail a moral and spiritual renewal of society, which he says is embodied in the Green New Deal. This tradition of socialism, according to Dorrien, is much more in keeping with the longstanding revisionist socialism of nineteen century British socialism, which, was “from the beginning religion friendly and ideologically porous.” Its main representatives were William Temple, R.H. Tawney and G.D.H. Cole. The historian Tim Rogan, whose book Mishra reviewed favorably, has recently called for a revival of this tradition, specifically what he describes as the tradition of “the moral economists,” by which he specifically has in mind Tawney, Karl Polanyi and EP Thompson.4 Another way of putting this is that the withering of the welfare state is inseparable from the decline of moral economy.

So which way will the younger generation of socialists go in terms of religion? It seems like the question is up for debate, and if that is the case then Dorrien’s book, which explicitly tries to avoid contemporary politics, nevertheless offers much food for thought.  He locates the essence of democratic socialism in an “ethical passion for social justice and radical democratic community” (4).  In this regard, the book seems to defend the Christian tradition of British socialism, especially since the book sides with Bernstein’s critique of Marxism, movement politics and the repeated claim that, even despite the young Marx, Marxism suffers from a degeneration of “moral-everything” and a fixation on collective ownership that wrongly identifies socialism with a totalizing goal.

Yet by elevating the ethical to the essential raises the foundational question of whether Christian socialism serves as a mere moral surrogate or conscience for Dorrien’s democratic socialist vision. In other words, an ethical imperative might insulate the Christian socialism that Dorrien aspires to separate from nationalism, racism, militarism and the like, but it could also end up going in the very direction that Unger mentions above and therefore disappear in the process. The fact that the book abruptly ends before the 1960s and thus fails to explain the tidal wave of secularization in Europe, and the causes for it that came crashing down on liberal Protestantism during this time, perhaps speaks to this.  There is a large debate, of course, on such causes, and Dorrien appears critical of the fideism of the Barthian revolt, and the kind of post-liberalism that arose in its wake, which blamed liberal Protestantism for its own demise. “The challenge” Dorrien observes, “for ethical socialists was to prevent socialism from gaining the world but losing it soul.” The question, then, is how can such a vision be revived and sustained especially given the appeal of  socialism today. Where are the ethical and moral sources of socialism to found? Here it is helpful to note that the British Christian socialists that Dorrien prefers had the backing of powerful institutions that in our time have declined in significance: specifically, the Anglican Church and a once central role for theology in university education.

What does all this mean for the relationship between the new socialism and religion today? If someone like Bernie Sanders has a shot at being elected, he is absolutely going to have to win over working class Christian swing voters in the Midwest, some of whom switched from Obama to Trump. Can there be a kind of Christian socialist movement that mobilizes this group for Bernie? It seems unlikely that they are going to give up their faith for secular socialism. Institutionally, I would have to imagine that there are plenty of religious socialists in divinity and theological schools across this country that have institutional means to reach this crowd. If something like religious freedom today is being used for conservative purposes then perhaps these Christian socialists should use it for their own political purposes, especially since there are institutional resources across the country that are uniquely available to them to reach working class people. Dorrien’s book offers a wealth of knowledge about the promises and pitfalls of such endeavors in the past, which is why it so important for thinking about the present moment.


  1. Paul Silas Peterson, The Early Karl Barth (Tubingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2018), 351-398.

  2. Pankaj Mishra, “Response to Critics,” H-Diplo (2 July 2019):

  3. Ibid.

  4. Tim Rogan, The Moral Economist: R. H. Tawney, Karl Polanyi, E. P. Thompson, and the Critique of Capitalism (Princeton University Press, 2017).

  • Gary Dorrien

    Gary Dorrien


    Response to Daniel Steinmetz-Jenkins

    I am grateful for this response from Daniel Steinmetz-Jenkins, who teaches twentieth-century global intellectual history at Yale’s Jackson Institute of Global Affairs and is currently writing on a book on French neoconservatism, especially Raymond Aron. Thirty years ago I nearly took the same career path and might have done so had two theological disciplines—philosophical theology and social ethics—not made deeper claims on me. I have followed the excellent work of Steinmetz-Jenkins with interest and with somewhat wistful might-have-been.

    It is true, as Steinmetz-Jenkins suggests, that scholarship on democratic socialism routinely proceeds as though Christian socialism never happened or it didn’t matter to whatever extent it existed. Clearly this is an issue for me, as the Christian socialist tradition is the key to my work as a whole. Everything I have done in books ranging over multiple academic disciplines is rooted in the religious socialism of Martin Buber, Gustavo Gutierrez, Scott Holland, Martin Luther King Jr., early Reinhold Niebuhr, Leonhard Ragaz, Walter Rauschenbusch, Vida Scudder, R. H. Tawney, William Temple, Paul Tillich, and George W. Woodbey, a discourse tradition that today includes Michael Eric Dyson, bell hooks, Michael Lerner, Jürgen Moltmann, Rosemary Radford Ruether, Cornel West, and the previous contributors to this Syndicate series. I am long habituated to the prejudice that somehow these figures do not make religious socialism worth considering or even modify how one should conceive democratic socialism. Social Democracy in the Making is a word to the contrary, as will be its sequel, Making Democratic Socialism American.

    My intertwining of the secular socialist narrative with religious socialism in both books will feel to some readers like two-books-in-one, especially to readers for whom the secular story is the real one. But I don’t regard either book as two-books-in-one. Religious socialism has been far more important to democratic socialism than most of the literature about democratic socialism conveys, and it still is. The standard books on American democratic socialism give minimal treatment or none at all to religious socialism, which makes the wondrous stew that was the early Socialist Party of America incomprehensible. Most of the early twentieth-century Socialists who were women or African Americans came through the door of the church-based suffrage, temperance and Christian socialist movements. One would never know it to read Ira Kipnis, Daniel Bell, David Shannon, and other classic works on this subject; even James Weinstein barely took a pass at the religious sources of democratic socialism.

    Steinmetz-Jenkins notes rightly that I strained not to peak ahead in Social Democracy in the Making, although a few exceptions were made for German co-determination, the Swedish Meidner Plan, postcolonial theory, and the social movements of the 1960s. My thematic and temporal frame–secular-religious, England-Germany, 1820 to 1960—had plenty to handle. Carrying forward from 1960 will require another book. Meanwhile the U.S. American book will run from 1850 to the present day.

    Steinmetz-Jenkins presses an important question about what kind of religion comes from religious socialism, especially if its ethical core is as central as I claim. The social gospel had a pronounced tendency from the beginning to reduce its theological basis to a vaguely religious social-ethical claim. The U.S. American social gospel founders Washington Gladden and George Herron interpreted doctrines entirely by their social ethical fruit. Many of their Christian socialist successors, plus Herron, gradually shucked off any doctrinal superstructure. It was hard enough to believe in democratic socialism; theology doubled the number of hard-to-believe things. Norman Thomas, a Presbyterian pastor who became the leader of the Socialist Party for 40 years, was the quintessential example of this trend. Being a social gospel socialist made Thomas a compelling Socialist leader and disinclined to persist with a theological claim.

    But this trend does not describe any of the theologians I featured in Social Democracy in the Making. F. D. Maurice and William Temple were deeply grounded in ecumenical Anglicanism and a belief in God’s ever-gracious reality; secular disbelief held no lure for them, even though both were liberally minded. Leonhard Ragaz was similar to Maurice and Temple in his Swiss Reformed context, and for Paul Tillich the deep wellspring of religious conviction was post-Kantian religious idealism. Outright disbelief was a wasteland to Tillich—shallow and not tempting. I also featured countertypes who worried that their fellow socialist theologians were too relativistic and ecumenical. Stewart Headlam was militantly Anglo-Catholic because he doubted that ecumenical socialism had spiritual staying power. Hermann Kutter believed that theology itself was corrupting and socialism was the hammer of God’s righteous anger. Karl Barth got his bearings from Kutter before he developed a theology of the Word holding a place for socialism, but strictly as a political position, not as Christian socialism.

    All these theological options remain in play. I do not believe in sola scriptura, ecclesiastical insularity, or any such narrow-is-the-way strategy, so I am much closer to Tillich, Ragaz, and Temple than to Barth or Headlam. I believe it helps to be religious and it helps to be pragmatic, but I would never say that you have to religious to care about social justice any more than I would say you have to be pragmatic. What matters is to abolish domination and injustice and ward off the eco-apocalypse. Some warriors against domination, injustice and eco-apocalypse find strength in a narrow theology that spurns interfaith ecumenism and pragmatism. I ran long on Barth in Social Democracy in the Making because Barth is a major figure in modern theology and his legacy for political theology is often reductively misconstrued. It takes a great deal of digging and sorting to get Barth right.

    Steinmetz-Jenkins asks why Barth is so popular today among conservative theologians. I don’t believe that Barth’s socialism or anti-anti-Communism have much to do with it, or that his positions on these subjects are much understood by his conservative evangelical followers. For decades Barth was a singularly threatening figure to evangelical theologians. Evangelical students had to be warned against him because Barth reclaimed the Reformation doctrines of sola scriptura, sola fide, and sola gratia with tremendous intellectual force. If Barth was so evangelical, perhaps the inerrancy doctrine was a mistake–an overreach that evangelicals should recalibrate. Everything else concerning Barth, in the evangelical debate about him, revolved around this issue. Barth was a temptation on every evangelical campus where the biblical inerrancy test was a source of anxiety and trepidation. Then prominent evangelical theologians Bernard Ramm, Donald Bloesch, and Clark Pinnock let go of inerrancy doctrine, in each case by warmly commending Barth. Believing in biblical inerrancy remains the doctrinal test of admission to the Evangelical Theological Society. But Barth symbolizes that another kind of evangelicalism exists, which claims the greatest theologian of the twentieth century for its side.