God, Socialism and the Market Economy

9 September 2005

God, Socialism and the Market Economy

Column by Ronald van Raak. Member of the Dutch Senate for the Socialist Party, at the Annual Conference 2005 of the Ecumenical Association of Academies and Lay Centres in Europe, 9th September, Dominican Activity Centre, Huissen, The Netherlands.

Religion is ‘hot’. There is a growing number of young Muslims, that do not only watch MTV, but also visit the mosque. In August over a million youngsters had gathered during an international meeting of Roman Catholics in Cologne. Many of them carried a condom in their inside pocket, but also cheered for the Pope. Political leaders often openly profess their religiosity. George Bush does, and Tony Blair does and of course our Dutch Prime Minister, Jan Peter Balkenende does. But in spite the massive attention the Pope receives from young persons, not many of them join our Prime Minister’s Christian-democratic party. The two smaller Christian parties in the Netherlands, the Christian Union and the SGP, are more successful in binding young people. And perhaps to your surprise, another political party seems to be attractive for religious young people, my own Socialist Party (SP).

The SP is the fastest growing political party in the Netherlands. By now it’s the third largest political party in membership. More than thirty years ago the party started as a group of small and local action groups, especially in the southern, Roman Catholic parts of the country. Here the socialists fought against the dominance of the former Catholic party and of the Roman Catholic Church in general. Most members of the SP considered themselves non-religious. Nowadays the attitude towards religion within the party seems to have changed. As a growing number of members call themselves religious and many regularly visit a church.

Recently the Centre for Policy Studies of the SP published a book on the future of socialism, for which present socialists where asked to comment upon classical socialist texts. The book starts with an essay written by the famous Dutch priest Huub Oosterhuis, who wrote about ‘The revolution of the Bible’. Last year the youth organisation of the SP invited me to speak at their meeting which was given the title ‘Christ for dummies’. In fact, two out of the four members of the SP-group in the Dutch Senate are church going.

What has gone wrong with the Dutch Socialist Party? Why do so many Roman Catholic people, but also Protestants, Muslims, Jews, Hindus and other religious people, think the SP offers them a good political alternative? Why have so many socialists left the idea made very explicit by Karl Marx, that religion is opium for the people?

The death of God
The Netherlands still is a secular society. Secularism is seen by most Dutchmen as an attainment of the Enlightenment. A philosophical highlight of this enlightened view of man is the death of God, as declared by Friedrich Nietzsche. But if one analyses the proposed aphorism more accurately, one realizes that for Nietzsche the death of God was not a happy occurrence, but a horrifying one.

In aphorism 125 of The Gay Science, written in 1882, in the bright morning hours a madman lights a lantern and runs to the market, crying ‘I seek God!’ At this part he provokes much laughter to his audience. He then jumps into their midst and pierces through them with his eyes: ‘I will tell you.’ He says. ‘We have killed him - you and I. All of us are his murderers. But how did we do this? ... Who gave us the sponge to wipe away the entire horizon?’ This madman wanted to teach the people that the death of God was not an act of liberation, but a loss of meaning and understanding: ‘Do we not feel the breath of empty space? Has it not become colder?’

Here the madman fell silent and again looked at his listeners, but they stared at him in astonishment. At the end he threw his lantern on the ground, and it broke into pieces. ‘I have come too early,’ he then said: ‘my time is not yet.’ The same day the madman forced his way into several churches, where he said: ‘What after all are these churches now if they are not the tombs and sepulchres of God?’

God and socialism
It is easy to declare God dead, but that still doesn’t solve the questions to which God once was an answer. For most religious people God is a fundament for public morality. And if one looks at morality I see some possible points of agreement between Christianity and socialism. Could one, for example, compare the Christian concept of neighbourly love with the socialist idea of solidarity? Or the Christian ideal of men as keeper of Gods creation with the socialist ideal of economic sustainability? The Bible shows us the importance of brotherhood. Marx’s Communist Manifesto could teach us why brotherhood in our society is not possible. It shows us why the difference between our richness and the poverty of others is not a tragedy, but an avoidable situation. Both books, the Bible and the Communist Manifesto show how important it is to make sure that nobody starves while others choke in abundance. In history, many revolts against oppression and poverty were organised in the name of Christ, by priests in Latin America, but in Western Europe as well. Domela Nieuwenhuis, who in 1888 was the first socialist MP in the Netherlands, was a revolutionary and a cleric at the same time.

The ideas and activities of the SP are guided by three moral concepts: human dignity, equivalence, and solidarity. By human dignity we mean the respect of one person for the other, a secure existence for everyone, and a fair chance for every person to pursue, in full respect for others, his or her personal happiness. A civilised society demands the fundamental recognition that all people are of equal worth. To treat everyone equally demands broad tolerance throughout society. If we insist that everyone is of equal value, we at the same time recognise that not everyone is equal in terms of opportunity. Because of this, we must constantly organize solidarity between people, helping and caring for each other wherever necessary and giving everyone a real chance to lead a fulfilling life.

The morality of market economy
Bush in the United States, Blair in Great Britain and Balkenende in the Netherlands declare themselves to be Christians. But al three of them, in my opinion, embrace an idol, of market economy. This idolatry is based upon a metaphysical idea of an invisible hand, which controls all human affairs. This idea has its very own morality. In brief: it promotes the idea of a human being as a rational individual, who needs to be in competition with other individuals and whose prosperity lies in material gains. Free market economy makes high promises; it wants us to belief that it respects the natural differences between people, by giving the individual total freedom for the benefit of it’s own development.
One of the main political aims of Balkenende is a public debate about the moral state of our society. But this Christian Prime Minister, who now leads a coalition government with two liberal parties, also shows himself to be a promoter of free market economy. I think these economic politics put Balkenende in a moral dilemma. Which moral does he want to promote? Is this a Christian morality, which emphasises a strong sense of community, neighbourly love and spiritual welfare? Or a free market morality, which promotes individualism, competition and materialism?

A new coalition?

Could old enemies ever become new friends? A lot of my socialist friends have declared that God is dead. But most of them have learnt the meaning of Nietzsche’s madman, who taught them that the death of God was not only an act of liberation, but also a loss of meaning and understanding. A growing number of the SP-members turn themselves to Marx ánd Jesus at the same time, to find a new horizon for their moral principles.

If I ask my Christian friends which moral principles they prefer, they never choose individualism, competition and materialism and always feel themselves comfortable with moral concepts like human dignity, equivalence, and solidarity. ‘What after all are these churches now, if they are not the tombs and sepulchres of God?’, Nietzsche’s madman asks. I am sure that if we seriously take into consideration the moral tasks given to us by both Marx ánd Christ, a new coalition against the cold and empty space of market economy is possible.

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