Karl Kautsky

Foundations of Christianity

Book Four: The Beginnings of Christianity

V. The Development of the Christian Community


The beginnings of the Christian communities were like any new establishment of a proletarian society. Its founders, the apostles, had to do all the work in the community, propaganda, organization and administration. But as the community persists and grows, the need for a division of labor is felt, the necessity of assigning particular functions to definite men.

The administration of the income and expenditure of the community was the first definite community office.

Propaganda could be carried on by every member as he pleased. Even those who devoted themselves exclusively to it, were still not charged with it by the community even in the second century, as we have seen. Apostles and prophets named themselves to their calling, or, as it appeared to them, it was only God’s voice that they were following. The prestige of the individual propagandist in the community, whether apostle or prophet, and therefore his income too, depended on the impression he made, on his personality.

In addition, the maintenance of party discipline, if we may use the term, was something the community itself took care of so long as it was small and all the members knew each other well. It decided for itself on the admission of new members; who performed the ceremony of admission, the baptism, was immaterial. They were the tribunal before which all the complaints of comrades against comrades were to be brought. The Christians distrusted the official courts as much as the Social Democrats do today. In addition, their social views were in sharp opposition to those of the official judge. A Christian would have considered it a sin to go before such a man to seek his rights, especially when the dispute was with a fellow Christian. This planted the seed of that special judicial power that the church has always claimed over its believers in the face of the civil courts. Later, of course, the original nature of the decisions here changed into their direct contrary, for at first they meant doing away with any class justice, the judgment of the accused by his fellows.

In Paul’s first Epistle to the Corinthians (6, verses 1f.), we find:

“Dare any of you, having a matter against another, go to law before the unjust, and not before the saints? Do ye not know that the saints shall judge the world? and if the world shall be judged by you, are ye unworthy to judge the smallest matters? Know ye not that we shall judge angels? how much more things that pertain to this life? If then ye have judgments of things pertaining to this life, set them to judge who are least esteemed in the church.”

Maintenance of discipline and peace in the community was at first just as formless as was propaganda, and bound to no definite office or authority.

The economic factor however early required regulation, especially since the community was not merely a propaganda society, but was a mutual aid society from the very beginning.

According to the Acts of the Apostles the need was early felt in the community of Jerusalem of having special members take care of the collection and distribution of the members’ contributions, especially with serving the food at table. Diakoneo means to serve, and particularly to serve at table. This was obviously the first function of the “deacons”, as the common meal was the most important activity of primitive Christian communism.

Acts relates: “And in those days, when the number of the disciples was multiplied, there arose a murmuring of the Greeks against the Hebrews, because their widows were neglected in the daily ministration [viz. meals, diakonia]. Then the twelve [apostles; actually there were only eleven, if we take all the Gospel stories at face value] called the multitude of the disciples unto them, and said, It is not reason that we should leave the word of God, and serve tables. Wherefore, brethren, look ye out among you seven men of honest report, full of the Holy Ghost and wisdom, whom we may appoint over to this business” (6, verses 1 to 3).

That is how it happened according to the account, and that is pretty much as it must have happened, by the nature of the case.

The apostles were therefore relieved from acting as waiters in the people’s house, something they must previously have done along with the propaganda work, and that became onerous as the community grew. But a division of labor must soon have been needed among the newly-introduced waiters, the deacons. Serving at table, cleaning up and other work of that sort was entirely different from the job of collecting and administering the members’ contributions. The latter meant a confidential position of great importance, especially as the community grew and had larger income. This position required considerable eloquence, business experience and kindness combined with firmness. An administrator was therefore set over the deacons.

The appointment of such an official was an obvious necessity. Any society that has property or income must have one. In the societies and unions of Asia Minor their administrative and financial officers bore the title of epimeletes or episcopos (observer, overseer). The same name was also used for certain civil functionaries. Hatch, who has studied this development in detail and described it in a book to which we owe much of our knowledge of the subject [21], cites a Roman jurist, Charisius, who says: Episcopi [bishops] are those who superintend the bread and the other things to be bought, that serve the people of the city as daily food.”

The city bishop was therefore a superintendent who in the main saw to the right feeding of the population It was a natural step to give the same title to the superintendent of the Christian “house of the people.”

We have already read of the common purse of the community, of which Tertullian speaks. We learn from the first apology of Justin Martyr (born about 100 A.D.) that it was in charge of a special trustee: “Those who can and will give something of their property at their discretion, which is collected and presented to the overseer, who with it supports the orphans and widows, those who are in need on account of sickness or some other cause, the prisoners and visitors from foreign parts and in general is concerned with anyone in need.”

Thus much work, much responsibility, and also much power was put into the hands of the bishops.

At the beginning of the community the office of bishop was an honorary post like that of his assistants and all the functionaries of the community, and was carried on gratis along with working for a living.

“The bishops and presbyters of that time ran banks, practiced as physicians, worked as silversmiths, herded sheep and sold their products in the open market. ... The most important decisions of the old provincial synods that have come down to us with relation to them are that the bishops should not peddle their wares from market to market and should not use their position to buy cheaper and sell dearer than others.” [22]

As a community grew, however, it became impossible to look after its many financial functions as a second job. The bishop was made an employee of the community, which paid him for his work.

With this his position became a permanent one. The community of course could discharge him at any time, if he did not suit them, but obviously they would not lightly put a man out on the streets after having taken him away from his occupation. Moreover, taking care of the business of the community required a good deal of ability and acquaintance with conditions in the community that could be obtained only by long service in the job. It was therefore in the interests of the smooth development of the community’s affairs to avoid any unnecessary changing of bishops.

But the longer the bishop stayed in his position, the more his prestige and power must have increased, if he was big enough for the job.

He was not the only permanent employee of the community. The post of the deacons too could not be filled forever as a supplementary employment. Like the bishops they began to be paid out of the community funds, but were his subordinates. The bishop had to deal with them, and so in choosing them he was consulted first. Being able to fill offices in the community raised his influence still further.

As the community expanded, it became impossible for it to take care of its discipline by itself. It was not only that the number of members grew, but they included a greater variety of elements. If at first all formed a single family, in which every one knew all the other comrades, all were completely in accord in feeling and thinking and constituted a chosen band of enthusiasts glad to make sacrifices, this gradually ceased to be the case as the community became larger. All sorts of people came into it, from all sorts of classes and localities, often alien to each other and without mutual understanding, and sometimes even hostile to each other, such as slaves and slave-owners; in addition, there were elements who were not moved by enthusiasm but coolly reckoned on taking advantage of the credulity and self-sacrificing spirit of the comrades. Add to that differences in outlook and philosophy, and all this must have led to all sorts of disputes, often disputes that could not be settled off hand by discussion in the assembly but required long investigations into the facts of the case.

A committee of elders or presbyters was therefore entrusted with keeping the discipline of the community and smoothing out disputes within it, to report to the community on the expulsion of unworthy members and the admission of new ones, whose baptism they performed.

The bishop, who had the most exact knowledge of the relationships within the community, was the natural chairman of this committee. This also gave him influence over the moral supervision and legal functions of the community. As the presbyters (from which the word “priest” is derived) became regular paid officers of the community as a result of its growth, they came, along with the deacons, under the authority of the administrator of the community finances, the bishop.

In a large city the community could easily become so large that a single building would not be enough for their assembly. It was divided into districts. In every district group there was a deacon to serve the comrades and a presbyter was assigned by the bishop to conduct the group and to represent the bishop. Similar measures were taken with respect to the suburbs and villages. Where they were on the edges of a community like that of Rome or Alexandria, the influence of the great city was overwhelming, and the neighboring community came of their own accord under the influence of the city and its bishop, who sent them deacons and presbyters.

In this way there gradually was formed a community bureaucracy headed by the bishop, and it became increasingly independent and powerful. A man had to have the maximum of prestige in the community to be chosen for a post that was so much sought after. Once it was won, it carried with it so much power that given a little shrewdness and courage the will of the bishop, whose tendencies coincided with those of the majority of his community to begin with, would more and more be decisive, particularly in personal questions. As a result, his authority came to extend not only to persons engaged in the administration of the community, but also to those who were engaged with propaganda and theory.

As we have seen, the apostles were pushed into the background by the prophets in the second century. Both however, apostles as well as prophets, could often clash with the bishop, who would not hesitate to make his financial and moral power felt. It would not be hard for him to make life in the community miserable for apostles and prophets, and teachers too, if any of them manifested tendencies he did not care for. And that would happen frequently enough, especially with apostles and prophets.

Bishops, that is men who dealt with money, would not be chosen from among unworldly enthusiasts, but rather sober, business-like practical men. These men knew how to appreciate the value of money and of prosperous moneyed members of the community. It would be they who would represent opportunistic revisionism in the Christian community and work to mitigate hatred against the rich within it, to tone down the doctrines of the community in a way that would make it pleasanter for wealthy people to remain within it.

The rich of that period were also the educated.

Making the community fit the needs of the rich and educated meant weakening the influence of apostles and prophets and reducing their tendencies ad absurdum, as well as the tendencies of those who hated riches out of mere boorishness and of those unselfish elements who combated riches out of their convictions, and the more so if they had once been rich and given their entire fortune to the community to help realize its lofty communistic ideal.

In the struggle between rigorism and opportunism it was the latter that won; that is, the bishops won over the apostles and the prophets, who had fewer and fewer opportunities for action, or even for existence, in the community. Their place was more and more taken by officers of the community. Since every comrade had originally had the right to speak in the assembly and engage in propaganda, officers could do so too, and they must have done so to a great extent. It is clear that comrades that stood out from the anonymous mass as well-known orators would be more likely to be elected to office than unknowns. In addition propaganda activity might be required of the successful candidates over and above their administrative and judicial work. Many administrators laid more stress on propaganda work than on their primary official duties, when the growth of the community created new organs that took some of the load off the others. Often the deacons could devote themselves more to propaganda, since their functions were performed in large communities by special hospitals, orphanages, asylums for the poor and hostels for visiting comrades.

At the same time the growth of the community and its economic functions made it necessary to provide the officers with some training in their duties. It would have been too expensive and dangerous now to let every man gain his skill by experience in practice. The new crop of officers of the community was brought to the house of the bishop and made acquainted there with the obligations of their positions in the church. If they had to carry on propaganda in addition to their official duties, it was natural to train them for that purpose too in the bishop’s house, instructing them in the community’s doctrines.

Thus the bishop became the center both of the economic and propaganda work of the community; in this case too ideology had to give way to economics.

There now grew up an official doctrine, recognized and propagated by the bureaucracy of the community; views that differed from it were put down by all the means at their disposal.

The tendencies the bishops opposed were those of the original proletarian communism with its hostility to state and property. In keeping with the ignorance of the lower strata of the population, their credulity, the incompatability of their hopes with actuality, it was just these tendencies that were linked up with a particular faith in miracles and spiritual exaltations. Although the official church could do very well in this domain, the sects which it persecuted in the first centuries were far ahead of it in weird exaggerations.

Sympathy with the oppressed and aversion to all oppression should not mislead us into regarding any opposition to the official church or every heresy as equivalent to a higher conception.

The formulation of an official church doctrine was aided by other circumstances too.

We do not know very much about the doctrines of the first Christian communities. To judge by various indications, they were not very comprehensive and were very simple. In any case we can not presume that they already contained everything that the Gospels later added as the doctrine of Jesus.

We may grant, if we have to, the probability that Jesus lived and was crucified, probably because of an attempted rebellion; but that is all that can be said of him. What is said about his teaching is so devoid of evidence, so contradictory and so unoriginal, such a collection of general moral commonplaces that were on everyone’s lips at that time, that no part of it can be traced back to any genuine doctrine of Jesus’.

We are justified in imagining the beginnings of the Christian communities as more or less on the pattern of the beginnings of the socialistic societies, with which they have so many other resemblances. If we look at these beginnings, we never find an overpowering personality, whose theory sets the tone for the further course of the movement, but a chaotic fermentation, an uncertain instinctive search and groping by numerous proletarians, none of them standing out much beyond his fellows, all motivated by more or less the same tendencies while often falling into extreme peculiarities. For example, some such picture as this is presented by the beginnings of the proletarian-socialistic movement in the 1830’s and 40’s. The League of the Just, the later Communist League, already had a considerable history behind it before Marx and Engels gave it a definite theoretical basis in the form of the Communist Manifesto. And this league itself was but the continuation of earlier proletarian currents in France and England. Without Marx and Engels its doctrine would still have remained for a long time in the stage of fermentation. Nevertheless, the two fathers of the Communist Manifesto were able to attain their outstanding and decisive position only because they had mastered the science that their time provided.

There is nothing to prove, on the contrary it is quite out of the question, that a personality with a deep scientific training presided over the cradle of Christianity. It is expressly said of Jesus that he was no better educated than his comrades, the simplest of proletarians. Paul does not point to his outstanding knowledge, but to his martyr death and resurrection. It was this death that made the deepest impression on the Christians.

The kind of teaching that was done in the first century of Christianity bears this out.

The apostles and prophets do not reproduce a definite doctrine that they have received from others; they speak as the spirit listeth. The most diverse views were voiced; dispute and conflict filled the first communities.

Paul writes to the Corinthians (I Corinthians 11, verses 17f.):

“Now in this that I declare unto you I praise you not, that ye come together not for the better, but for the worse. For first of all, when ye come together in the church, I hear that there be divisions among you; and I partly believe it. For there must be also heresies among you, that they which are approved may be made manifest among you.”

The later official church did not at all see this need for different currents within the community, heresies (Paul uses the word haireseis).

In the second century the uncertain seeking and groping comes to an end. The community has a history. In the course of this history fixed articles of faith have won out and been accepted by the large mass of the members. But now educated people enter the community. On the one hand they write down the history of the movement and its articles of faith, as they get them orally, thereby preserving them from further alteration; secondly, they raise the naive doctrine that they find to the rather low level of the knowledge of the time, fill it out with their philosophy, with the purpose of making it attractive to educated people as well and arming it against the objections of pagan critics.

Anyone who now wished to be a teacher in the Christian community would have to possess a certain amount of knowledge. The apostles and prophets could no longer maintain the pace simply by continuing to thunder against the sinfulness of the world and to predict its early end.

The unfortunate apostles and prophets were restricted and harried on all sides. Their small-scale enterprises had in the end to succumb to the enormous apparatus of the Christian bureaucracy. They disappeared. The teachers were deprived of their freedom and subordinated to the bishop. Soon nobody dared to speak in the community assembly, the church [23], without previous permission from the bishop; that is, nobody outside of the community bureaucracy directed by the bishop, the clergy [24], which set itself more and more apart from the mass of the fellows, the laity [25], and above them. The image of shepherd and flock takes root; and by the flock is meant the patient kind of sheep that lets itself be herded and shorn. The chief shepherd is the bishop.

The international nature of the movement contributed still further toward increasing the power of the bishop. Formerly it had been the apostles who, by their constant roving, maintained the international links between the communities. As the apostolate faded, it became necessary to find other means of holding together and coordinating the communities. If disputes arose or a common action or a common rule was needed on any occasion, congresses of delegates of the communities came together, provincial and even imperial congresses, from the second century on.

At first these conventions served merely for discussion and consultation. They could not make binding decisions. Each individual community felt itself to be sovereign. Cyprian, in the first half of the third century, still proclaimed the absolute independence of each community. But it is clear that the majority must have had the moral advantage on its side, This advantage became more and more binding; the decisions of the majority came to be obligatory for all of the communities represented; and the latter fused into a single compact body. The total gained in power what the single community lost in freedom of movement.

Thus the Catholic church was forged. [26] Communities that refused to submit to the decisions of the congresses (synods, councils) had to leave the Catholic union of churches, were excluded from the community. The individual that was expelled from his community was no longer welcomed in other communities; he was excluded from all communities.

And the effects of this exclusion, or excommunication, became much more serious when the church changed into an organization covering the entire state, in fact all European society, of which the states formed only single parts. Exclusion from the church was now equivalent to being excluded from human society, and could amount to a death sentence.

From the democratic standpoint there is no objection to be made against the church’s excommunications, so long as the church forms only one among several parties. Anyone who does not believe the church’s articles of faith or will not obey its regulations does not belong in it. Democracy has no reason to demand tolerance of the church, so long as the church is content to be one party along with others, so long as the state does not act for it or even identify itself with it. This is where a democratic church policy comes into play, not in demanding tolerance for unbelievers in the church, which would be a feeble and shallow policy.

Although the church’s right to excommunicate is unobjectionable in and of itself from the democratic point of view, so long as it was not a state church, there are many objections to be made even at this time with respect to the way in which this right was used. For it was no longer the mass of comrades but the bureaucracy that did the excommunicating. The more harm the individual could suffer in the process, the greater was the power of the clerical bureaucracy and its head, the bishop.

An additional factor was that he was the delegate of his community at the church congresses. The bishops’ power rose along with the councils, which were from the beginning assemblies of bishops.

The bishop had prestige and great power as a result of having in his hands the administration of the community’s property and the appointment and conduct of the entire administrative, judicial and propaganda-scholarly apparatus of the community bureaucracy. Now there was added the superior power of the totality, the Catholic Church, as over against the part, the community. The bishop stood to the community as representative of the entire church. The more rigid the organization of the entire church became, the feebler the community compared to the bishop, at least when he represented the trends of the majority of his colleagues. “This bishops’ cartel stripped the laity of all power.” [27]

The bishops were not entirely wrong in deriving their authority from the apostles, whose successors they held themselves to be. Both formed the international, cohesive element among the communities with relation to each individual community, and that was the source of their immense influence and power.

The community soon lost the last remnant of its original democracy, the right to choose its officials. As the bishop and his men gained independence and greater power in the community, it became easier for him to get the community to choose men acceptable to him. He became the man who in fact filled the offices. In choosing the bishop himself the power of the clergy in the community always insured the election of their own candidates. It finally reached the point where the clergy alone chose the bishop, and the mass of comrades in the community had only the right to confirm or reject the choice; but this too turned into an increasingly empty formality. The community finally sank to the level of an applauding mob to whom the clergy presented the bishop that had been chosen for them, so that they could shout hurrah for him.

This constituted the final annihilation of the democratic organization of the community, and put the final seal on the clergy’s absolutism; the clergy had been transformed from a humble “servant of God’s servants” into their absolute master.

It goes without saying that the property of the community now became in fact the property of their administrators, though not their personal property, but that of the bureaucracy as a corporation. The church property no longer was the common property of the comrades, but the property of the clergy.

This transformation was mightily supported and hastened by the official recognition of Christianity at the beginning of the fourth century. On the other hand, this recognition of the Catholic Church by the emperors was but a consequence of the fact that the bureaucracy and episcopal absolutism had already absolute power.

So long as the church was a democratic organization, it was completely opposed to the essence of the imperial despotism in the Roman Empire; but the episcopal bureaucracy, absolutely ruling and exploiting the people, was quite useful for imperial despotism. It could not be ignored; the emperor had to come to terms with it, because otherwise it threatened to grow too strong for him.

The clergy had become a force which every ruler of the empire had to reckon with. In the civil wars at the beginning of the third century the victor was Constantine, the candidate to the throne who had allied himself with the clergy.

The bishops were now the lords who along with the emperors ruled the Empire. The emperors often presided at the councils of the bishops, but also put the power of the government at the disposal of the bishops to carry out the decisions of the councils and excommunications.

Now too the church achieved the rights of a juridical person capable of acquiring and inheriting property. This increased its excellent appetite, and the property of the church increased enormously, and along with it the exploitation practiced by the church.

The organization of a proletarian, rebellious communism thus became the staunchest support of despotism and exploitation, a source of new despotism and new exploitation.

The victorious Christian community was in every respect the exact opposite of that community that had been founded three centuries before by poor fishermen and peasants of Galilee and proletarians of Jerusalem. The crucified Messiah became the firmest support of that decadent and infamous society which the Messianic community had expected him to destroy down to the ground.




The Catholic Church, especially after it had achieved government recognition, transformed the principles of the original Messianic community into their exact opposite. However, this was by no means a peaceful process without opposition and strife. For the social conditions that had created the original democratic communism of Christianity continued to exist, and even became more aggravated as the Empire decayed.

We have seen how movements of protest against the new trend appeared from the outset. After it had become the dominant and official trend of the church, and no other was permitted within the community, new democratic and communistic sects kept arising alongside of the Catholic Church. In North Africa, for instance, at the time of the Church’s recognition by Constantine, the sect of Circumcelliones was widespread. Fanatical beggars who carried to an extreme the struggle of the Donatist sect against the official church and the state, preached war against all the noble and rich. As in Galilee at the time of Christ, the peasant population of the fourth century in North Africa rose in desperation against their oppressors, and their protest took the form of banditry. As the Zealots had done before them, and probably the first adherents of Jesus as well, the Circumcelliones now gave these bands a goal, emancipation from all subjection. They boldly stood up in battle to the imperial troops who, hand in hand with the Catholic priests, sought to suppress the uprising, which lasted for decades.

This attempt to revive communism within the church failed, and so did every other, whether peaceful or violent. They all failed for the same reasons that had finally changed the first attempt into its opposite, and continued to operate, just as the need for such attempts persisted. This need was reinforced by the increasing distress; but it must not be forgotten that the church also was increasingly able to keep a large part of the proletariat from the worst distress by means of its charitable institutions, and also to make it dependent on the clergy, to corrupt it, to smother all enthusiasm and all higher thoughts in it.

When the Church became the State Church, an instrument of despotism and exploitation, on a scale of wealth and power that history had never yet known, the end of all its communistic tendencies seemed to have arrived. And yet these tendencies were to gain new strength precisely out of the state religion.

Up to the time of its official recognition, the expansion of the Christian community life had been confined essentially to the large cities. That was the only place it could maintain itself during the persecutions. In the country, where the individual is easily observed, secret organizations could exist only if they were supported by the entire population, like the Irish secret societies of the nineteenth century. Any minority movement of social opposition encounters tremendous difficulties in the country; and this was true for Christianity as well during the first three centuries.

There were no obstacles to Christianity’s expansion in rural districts once it had ceased to be an opposition movement and been recognised by the state. For three hundred years Christianity, like Judaism, had been almost exclusively a religion of the cities. Now it began to be a religion of peasants too.

Christianity brought with it to the country its communistic tendencies. Here however these tendencies had much more favorable conditions than in town, as we have seen in discussing the Essenes. Essenianism awoke at once to a new life in Christian form, once it was possible to form open communistic organizations on the land; and this indicates how great the need for it was. Just at the time when Christianity was accepted by the government, at the beginning of the fourth century, the first monasteries came into existence in Egypt, soon to be followed by others in all parts of the Empire.

The clerical and secular powers not only raise no obstacles to this kind of communism, but even favor it, just as the communist experiments in America early in the nineteenth century were not repugnant to the rulers of France and England. It was an advantage for them to have the restless agitators of the large cities leave the world and go out into wildernesses and there quietly raise cabbages.

Unlike the communist experiments of the Owenites, the Fourierists and Cabetists in America, the experiments of the Egyptian peasant Anthony and his disciples succeeded most brilliantly, like the closely-related communist colonies set up in the United States during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. A favorite explanation of this fact is that they were imbued with religious enthusiasm, which is lacking in the adherents of modern utopianism. No religion, no communism. But the same religious enthusiasm that inspired the monks was alive in the Christians of the great cities in the first centuries, and yet their communistic experiments were neither thorough-going nor of long duration.

The cause of the failures on the one hand, and of the successes on the other, is not in religion, but in the material conditions.

Compared to the communistic experiments of primitive Christianity in the great cities, the monasteries or communistic colonies in the wilderness had the great advantage that agriculture requires the combination of the farm and the family, and that agriculture on a large scale, combined with industries, was already a possibility, and in fact had already reached a high point of development in the latifundia of the large landholders The basis of this large-scale production was slavery, which set limits not only to its productivity but to its very existence. When the supply of slaves dwindled, the latifundia had to disappear. The monasteries picked up this large-scale production and developed it further, since free brothers replaced slaves in the work. Because of the general decline of society, the monasteries ended up by being the only places in the Empire where some remnants of ancient technology persisted and were preserved through the tempests of the great migrations, and even perfected in many points.

With the exception of the influence of the Orient, especially the Arabs, it was the monasteries in which the rise of culture in Europe had its source.

The comradely monastic mode of production was eminently suited to rural conditions of production in dying antiquity and the early Middle Ages. Hence their success. In the cities however the conditions of production worked against labor in association; communism could come into being only as mere communism of consumption; but it is the mode of production, not the mode of distribution that in the last analysis determines the nature of social relationships. It was only in the country, in the monasteries, that the community of means of consumption which Christianity had originally aimed at found a permanent basis in community of production. On such a basis the associations of the Essenes had flourished for a century, and had faded not from internal causes but because of the violent destruction of the Jewish commonwealth. On this foundation now arose the mighty structure of Christian monasticism, which has lasted until today.

But why did the colonies of modern utopian communism fail? They were constructed on a basis similar to that of the monasteries, but the mode of production had completely changed in the meantime. Instead of the scattered isolated enterprises of antiquity, which developed individualistic work and hindered the comradely cooperation of the city workers, giving him an anarchistic attitude towards work, today we find great giant factories in city industry, in which each worker is but one cog working together with numberless others.’The habits of working together, discipline at labor, the subordination of the individual to the needs of the community, replace the anarchistic ideas of the individual labor.

But only in production; not in consumption.

Conditions of life were previously so simple and uniform for the mass of the population, that a uniformity of consumption and needs resulted, making a constant community of consumption quite tolerable.

The modern mode of production, which shuffles all classes and nations together and brings the products of the entire world to the centres of commerce, constantly creates new things, constantly produces new methods for satisfying needs as well as producing new needs; this leads, even in the mass of the population, to a diversity of personal inclinations and needs, an “individualism,” such as was formerly to be found only among the rich and noble classes. The coarsest, most material means of consumption – food, drink, clothing – are often uniform in the modern mode of production. But it is in the nature of this mode of production not to restrict the consumption even of the masses to such means, but to evoke, even in the working masses, a growing need for means of culture – scientific, artistic, sporting and so forth; this need be comes diversied and varies from individual to individual. Individualism in consumption, hitherto a privilege of the wealthy and educated, now spreads to the working classes too, first in the large cities and then to the rest of the population. Although the modern worker submits to discipline in working together with his comrades, since he recognizes its necessity, he revolts against any regimentation of his consumption, his enjoyment. In this field he becomes more and more of an individualist, an anarchist if you will.

It can now be seen how the modern city proletarian must feel in a little communistic community in the wilderness, which is basically nothing but a large-scale farm with subsidiary industrial enterprises. As has been said several times, labor and housekeeping had hitherto been very closely linked in this branch of production. That was an advantage for Christian communism, which had community of consumption as its starting point. In the monastic institutions on the land this communism was compelled to tie up with communism of production, which gave it uncommon resistance and capacity for development.

Modern utopian communism started from community in producing and had a very solid foundation there; but the close ties between consumption and production in its small settlements forced it to add communism of consumption to its communism of production, with explosive effects under the existing social influences, inevitably producing endless disputes, and indeed the most disagreeable disputes over trifles.

The only elements of the population that could still successfully found communist colonies in the nineteenth century within modern civilization were elements untouched by modern capitalism, unworldly peasants. The only connection between their religion and their success is that religious enthusiasm as a social phenomenon, rather than as an individual characteristic, is only to be encountered among the most backward portions of the population. For modern industrial segments of the population communism of production can only be put into operation on so high a level that it is compatible with a very far-reaching individualism of enjoyment, taking the word in its broadest sense.

It was not communism of production that was wrecked in the non-religious communistic colonies of the last century. This sort of communism has long been practiced by capital in the most successful manner. What was wrecked was the communism of regimentation of personal consumption, which is so contrary to the nature of modern times.

In antiquity and down through the middle ages there was no trace of individualization of needs among the masses of the people. Accordingly, monastic communism met with no obstacles in that direction, and it prospered, for its methods were superior to the prevailing ones; it was economically superior. Rufinus (345 to 410), who founded a monastery himself on the Mount of Olives near Jerusalem in 877, says that almost as many men in Egypt lived in monasteries in the country as there were in the cities. We may discount this as the exaggeration of a pious imagination, but at any rate it indicates that the number of monks and nuns was extraordinary.

Thus monasticism gave new life to communistic enthusiasm within Christianity in a form that did not have to function as a heretical opposition to the ruling clerical bureaucracy, but got along very well with it.

However, this new form of Christian communism could not become the general form of society either, and remained confined to separate units. The new communism too had constantly to change into its contrary, and the more so, the more it was technically superior, for that enabled it to raise its members into an aristocracy standing out among the rest of the people and finally mastering and exploiting them.

If for no other reason, monastic communism could not become the general form of society because in order to carry out community of housekeeping, on which it was based, it had to exclude marriage, as the Essenes had done before them and the religious communistic colonies in North America in the last century did. It is true that the prosperity of housekeeping in common required no more than exclusion of individual marriage; a sort of marriage in common could have gone very well with it, as was shown by some of the recent colonies just mentioned. But this sort of sex relations was too sharply opposed by the general social mentality of dying antiquity to be accepted and openly practised. In the general moral nausea of the period asceticism, abstinence from enjoyment, was the much more likely attitude, and one which also wove a halo of glory and special holiness about those who practiced it. By celibacy however, monasticism condemned itself in advance to being a minority. This minority might well be a large one at certain times, as the statement of Rufinus above indicates, but even his undoubted exaggeration does not venture to assert that the monasteries contained the majority. And the monastic enthusiasm of the Egyptians at the time of Rufinus soon subsided.

With the consolidation of monastic communism, the wealth of the monastery increased. The monastic latifundia soon furnished the best products at the lowest prices, since their production costs were low, thanks to their common housekeeping. Like the latifundia of the great landowners they produced virtually all the foodstuffs and raw materials they needed. Their workers were more diligent than the landowners’ slaves, for they were comrades who received the entire product of their labor. Moreover, every monastery had so many workers that it could select those who were best suited for various fields of work, introducing an extensive division of labor. Finally the monastery was eternal, compared to the existence of the human individual. Inventions and trade secrets that would have been likely to disappear with the death of the inventor and his family became known to many brothers in a monastery, who handed them down to their successors. As a juridical, and so eternal, person the monastery was free of the dispersive effects of inheritance laws. It could only concentrate wealth, without ever being able to distribute it in inheritances.

Thus the wealth of the single monasteries grew and of the unions of monasteries under uniform direction and regulations, the monastic orders. But as soon as a monastery had become rich and powerful, it went through the same process that has been repeated since by many a communistic association that covers only a small part of society, as we see today in successful productive cooperatives. The owners of the means of production find it more comfortable to have others work for them instead of working themselves, as soon as they find the necessary labor power: propertyless wage-workers, slaves or serfs.

At the outset monasticism had given a new lease on life to Christian communist enthusiasm, but in the end it fell into the same path into which the clergy had led the church previously. It too became an organization of exploitation and mastery.

It is true that it did not always allow itself to be a mere spineless tool of the rulers of the church, the bishops. Being independent of the bishops economically and rivalling them in wealth, organized internationally just as they were, the monasteries were able to stand up to the bishops as no one else dared.

In the process they sometimes helped mitigate episcopal despotism. But this mitigation too finally turned into its contrary.

After the church had split into Oriental and Occidental branches, the emperor became the overlord of the bishops in the East. In the West there was no government powerful enough to extend over the entire area of the church. Hence the bishop of Rome at first had precedence over the other bishops, thanks to the importance of his diocese; over the centuries this precedence became a domination over the other bishops. In this battle against the bishops he found powerful support in the monastic orders. As the modern absolute monarchy grew out of the class warfare between feudal nobility and bourgeoisie, the absolute monarchy of the pope grew out of a class struggle between the episcopal aristocracy and the monks, the proprietors of the monastic latifundia.

The rise of the church ends with the consolidation of the papacy. From that time on any further development in state or society signifies a defeat for it; development becomes its enemy and it the enemy of any development; it becomes a thoroughly reactionary trend, harmful to society. Its usefulness after becoming the state religion had consisted in preserving and developing remnants of ancient culture which it had inherited. But when a new capitalist mode of production, far superior to the ancient form, arose on the basis which the church had saved and developed, and thereby creating the conditions for an all-embracing socialization of production, the Catholic Church could act only as an obstacle to social progress.




21. Edwin Hatch, Die Gesellschaftsverfassung der christlichen Kirchen im Altertum. Translated and with notes by A. Harnack, Giessen, 1883.

22. Hatch, op. cit., p.152f.

23. Ecclesia means originally the assembly of the people.

24. Kleros, the inheritance, the property of God, the people of God, God’s elect.

25. From laos, the people.

26. Catholic from holos (whole, complete), and the preposition kata, meaning down, concerning, belonging to. Katholikos means concerning the whole, and the Catholic Church is the whole church, or universal church.

27. Harnack, Mission und Ausbreitung des Christentums, I, 370 Harnack cites Bishop Trophimus as an example of the great power the bishops had over their communities. When the bishop went over to paganism during a persecution, most of his community followed him. “When he returned and did penance, the others followed him again; all would not have come back to the church if Trophimus had not led them.”


Last updated on 24.12.2003