All civilisation is built upon material goods. So long as man lives “from hand to mouth” so long as there are no permanent material goods and fixed property civilisation cannot arise. Notwithstanding the moral and social dangers of wealth and the acquisitive instinct the fact remains that higher civilisation presupposes a certain material wealth and stable conditions of property. One cannot deny that cultural life always has a certain bourgeois character. The beginning of civilisation coincides with the transition from nomadic life to agriculture and permanent residence. It is not by mere chance that the word culture originates from agriculture. Agriculture is the primary stage of man's mastery of nature. Agriculture brings with it permanent and communal residence and city-building which in its turn involves the crafts and division of labour. Division of labour again makes possible barter and its rationalised form money.
Of course historically the first property of man is neither soil nor house nor money but the tamed animal and the weapon. The nomad is proprietor of his herds; this property is so to say entirely natural. The struggle between mine and thine the problem of property becomes acute only through the competition for soil and particularly because of individual agricultural property. On the other hand the development of individual personality seems to be closely related to individual property. Where the peasant works a field that does not belong to him where he is not economically independent he will hardly become morally free. It is a law deeply rooted in man's nature that man ought to be free to dispose of the produce of his work that its fruit “belongs” to him. Wherever this law has been disregarded as in the absentee-proprietorship of the Roman Empire this has been a cause of cultural decline. Individual property is an important ethical value. We should not forget however that what nowadays is called individual property is of a very different nature. Modern individualism has transformed the firm relation between man and “his” soil into its very opposite making agricultural soil an object of capitalist speculation.
A similar relation to that which exists between man and soil obtains also between man and his house and his tools. In order to develop as a free personality man must have certain things that belong to him. It is true that even a slave—like Epictetus—may consider himself a free man as did the slaves of the New Testament Church considering themselves as free in Christ. But as a general rule the connection between individual property and the development of free personality can hardly be denied. A certain economic independence is a prerequisite of free personality. Private i.e. individual property is recognised in the Bible as a matter of course although it is never considered as an absolute right. It is limited by the idea of stewardship under God and by the regard for the common good. The short experiment of Christian communism in the community of Jerusalem does not really form an exception because everyone was free to place at the disposal of the community whatever he thought fit.
As has already been said division of work together with permanent residence makes possible barter and money. Money is the abstract form of material goods. This abstraction like all abstraction includes both great potentialities and great dangers. With money you can buy everything: land houses industrial products and even labour. The economics of money compared with barter may be compared to the relation between algebra and simple arithmetic. Where money has become the main material good quantity tends to prevail over quality. The desire for wealth becomes infinite. I cannot imagine an infinite number of concrete material goods but I can easily add an indefinite number of ciphers to any given figure. That is why money becomes a great danger to social life. In itself it is a most valuable invention freeing the exchange of goods from chance and other limitations and giving economic life a new mobility.
Material property necessary in itself becomes deeply problematic through the sinful nature of man in two respects: first with regard to the relation of material goods to other values; second with regard to the relations between men. Let us call the first danger practical materialism. In itself man's desire to acquire property is necessary both for the individual and for society. Cultural life can develop only where a certain surplus of means beyond bare existence is granted. A nation can apply itself to cultural production only where its energies are not entirely occupied by the production of the necessities of life. On the other hand interest in material property tends to become isolated and monopolistic. Instead of being a means of life wealth becomes the main aim. The necessary acquisitive instinct degenerates into mammonism money the abstract form of goods playing a large part in this dangerous development. The lust for property becomes particularly dangerous when it is combined with the lust for power. Money becomes the primary means of domination over others. And this is the second form of the sinful development of material property. Man wants to be wealthy at the cost of others and he wants to be wealthy in order to replace social responsibility by domination.
These two negative aspects of material goods are as old as civilisation. Their most primitive forms are theft and robbery; their more refined but not less pernicious forms are unscrupulous competition and exploitation the use of power for material advantage and the use of money to wield power. The motive of power has two aspects: people may desire material goods in order to get power or may use power in order to get material goods. All these possibilities are realised even in the most primitive civilisations. They have taken different shapes in the various epochs with their different social economic and political structures but basically they are always the same. It is of no small importance to see this semper idem because otherwise one is easily deluded by slogans putting the blame on specific social structures. Whether the economic structure is primarily agricultural or industrial whether it is characterised by barter money or credit whether the political structure is monarchic aristocratic or democratic we see always the terrific interplay of man's lust for wealth ruining his own soul and endangering the life of his fellow men and general culture. On the other hand the identity of the basic forms should not make us overlook differences arising from the various social economic or political structures.
We have already seen that money the abstract material good accentuates certain evil developments if not necessarily at least as a matter of fact. In a similar way we now have to think of certain other factors tending in the same direction. Just as money is an abstract form of barter credit is an abstract form of money. It is an abstraction of a higher order. In both cases abstraction is in itself a positive factor; it widens out the narrow limits of economic life set by the more concrete forms of goods. By credit one is enabled to work with the money of others paying them a certain interest as a reward for lending their money or giving them shares proportional to one's own gains. This expansion and intensification of economic possibilities at first sight looks quite harmless and useful. But upon closer inspection it carries with it great dangers. It creates income without work on the one hand and it separates economic production from economic power. The non-working money-giver controls the actual work and the distribution of its profit.
This new economic technique of the modern age however reached its full importance only in combination with the transition from craft to machine industry. The tool of the craftsman is cheap and can be owned by anyone. The machine however the factory the industrial plant is expensive; the individual cannot afford it he is dependent on credit. Industrialisation is possible only in combination with credit in its two forms: interest-earning and share-taking credit. Herein originates that system which we call capitalistic and which at first is a merely technical device that must be sharply distinguished from what we call the “capitalistic spirit”. Taken for granted that all the persons concerned are good Christians free from greed or egoism this capitalistic system combined with industrialism would work for good. But just as money the abstract form of goods brings with it danger even more does capitalistic credit become morally dangerous as soon as our moral hypothesis ceases to hold. In its combination with egoistic motives this credit system becomes what is called capitalism in the evil sense of the word. Why is that so?
First in expanding the possibilities of profit-making it also intensifies the profit motive. This is the effect of the doubled abstraction. Just as money can be more easily desired in indefinite quantities than concrete goods profit-bearing securities can be more easily desired indefinitely than money. The pure quantification of the material goods tends to unlimited desire. Second the development of the capitalist system means the gradual separation of ownership of the tools—machine factories etc.—and actual working with those tools. It creates dependent labour and independent capital. It is particularly the absentee-owner the anonymous shareholder who not knowing those who actually do the work and their conditions is free from those moral inhibitions of the profit motive which are likely to function wherever work is done in personal co-operation. Third the difference in economic power between the dependent workmen and the independent proprietor of the productive capital goes on increasing. Fourth this economic power concentrated in a few hands may become so great that it can influence and perhaps even control political power. Big business is an important factor in world politics.
So far we have followed the analysis of capitalism given by Karl Marx which generally speaking is correct. But certain corrections in his picture are necessary. Like his teachers of the Manchester school of economics Karl Marx also presupposes the pure homo oeconomicus taking for granted that the person who has economic power will use it without any consideration for the community or the human individual. This is wrong. The sense of justice and human personality is an important element even in a capitalist society. Second Karl Marx has not taken account of the fact that through the trade-union movement and state legislation the evil consequences of the capitalist system can be and have been checked to a large extent. Capitalism in Marx's sense i.e. unlimited exploitation of labour in the exclusive interest of capital profit hardly exists any more in Western society. All the same the moral dangers inherent in the capitalist system have become and still are sinister realities: tremendous intensification of the profit motive increased inequality with regard to property and power social disintegration. There does exist what Karl Marx calls a “proletariat” i.e. enormous masses of men living under conditions unworthy of and detrimental to human personality as well as to true community and spiritual cultural life.
The necessary reaction against this threat from above has created what Karl Marx calls the class struggle which of course is not merely a Communist programme but a double-sided fact poisoning and disintegrating society. The injustices inherent in and produced by the capitalist system and the proletarian disintegration of society have created a mentality within the world of labour which makes men inclined to listen to the slogans of totalitarian Communism which in itself is the end of free society and of human culture.
By all these factors the problem of material goods is accentuated in a way unknown to previous ages unknown particularly to the time of Old and New Testament revelation. In the teaching of the prophets of Jesus and of the apostles material goods and property are regarded as natural consequences of man's being a creature. The Bible is not ascetic either in this or in any other respect. In the Old Testament wealth is not morally discredited: it is a divine gift and a manifestation of God's blessing. But there already we do find a very critical estimate both of acquisition of goods and of property. The prophets in particular passionately denounced the egoistic profit-motive which makes men forget God and trample upon their neighbours. They are uncompromising in passing judgment upon the mighty and wealthy who use their power to exploit and enslave the powerless. In the New Testament this critical attitude becomes even sharper and wealth appears almost exclusively as a negative value. It seems almost impossible to be rich without forgetting the poor or without forgetting God. The man who enjoys his wealth without being moved and worried by the sight of poverty cannot be a disciple of Jesus. But even there we do not find a general moral disqualification of wealth or the postulate of poverty. The use which the medieval theology made of Jesus’ word to the rich young man is a misunderstanding. There is nothing like a general precept or “counsel” of poverty in the teaching of Jesus. Wealth is not in itself evil but its temptation is almost irresistible. While in the church of Corinth there are “not many wealthy” still there are some just as among those who followed Jesus there were some who had means without being blamed for it.
It is then very difficult if not impossible to gain direct norms from the Bible for present-day problems of economic life in so far as they are predominantly structural. Attempts have been made to derive from the Bible a general prohibition of interest and therefore a general opposition to the capitalist system. This interpretation however identifies two fundamentally different things: interest in the Old Testament sense and interest as the basis of the credit system which is entirely unknown in the Bible. To take interest from money lent to a neighbour who is in need is a different thing from deriving interest from money or credit given to someone who wants to make more money by it. The prohibition of interest by the medieval Church has nothing whatever to do with Biblical teaching.
On the other hand it is obvious that in the age of technical industry and the credit system the problem of material property and acquisition is fundamentally different from what it was in the time when the farmer the craftsman and the travelling merchant were the predominant figures of economic life. Material property in the modern sense includes power over the dependent non-proprietor and even power over the state machinery. While power in itself is not morally evil it becomes evil almost inevitably through the possibility of misusing it. And this possibility again becomes a fact almost inevitably if we take men as they are. The concentration of power inherent in the credit system is an enormous moral danger both with regard to the just distribution of goods and with regard to the just distribution of economic responsibility and power.
This danger however can be and is checked by two counter-forces which tend to create economic as well as political balance viz. by organised labour and by the equalising interference of the state. Furthermore it is checked by a third factor which is often under-rated and even ridiculed i.e. by spontaneous self-limitation of those in whose hand is the main economic power. Whether it is from fear of Communism or of organised labour or whether it comes from a real sense of justice and humanitarian motives the so-called capitalists have learned to restrict the use of their power. While of course this self-limitation is far from having reached the necessary level it is certain on the other hand that without it things would be much worse. It is here that the Christian Church has its most immediate field of action because within the Christian faith motive is more important than structure. Economic power is not necessarily used unjustly and therefore power is not in itself an evil but a great temptation. Where power is controlled by just and disinterested motives it does not lead to injustice and exploitation. A truly ethical control of motives wherever it does take place is a surer safeguard against injustice and selfish exploitation than any structural i.e. legal and political control. The change of the system is only a makeshift for the lacking ethical inhibitions in the use of economic power. Wherever the working man is not influenced by propagandist slogans he does not resent the so-called capitalistic system if he is sure that the “boss” is truly concerned about his welfare and led by the sense of justice and loyalty. However this obvious truth is limited by two facts: first that even the best-minded employer himself is part of a system which limits his good intentions; second by the fact that with the development of big business the individual employer more and more disappears. The law of big numbers makes itself felt and gives the moral problem of present-day economy a particularly dark aspect. Because the large majority of capitalists are motivated much more by the profit motive than by justice and goodwill the capitalist system on the whole has morally bad effects and would have them much more without the check of trade-unionism and state interference.
That is the reason why so many seek the solution of the problem in a radical change of the system in Communism or—what is merely another name for the same thing—State Socialism. They think that by such a structural change the injustices connected with the capitalist system would disappear. They postulate the nationalisation of all productive capital convinced that by this measure exploitation of the powerless would be discarded and a just distribution of national income would be safeguarded. This medicine however would prove more dangerous than the sickness which it means to cure. By nationalisation the whole of economy is politicised. Every member of the working community becomes a functionary of the state. It is inevitable that this politicisation of economy would lead to the totalitarian state. Totalitarianism however means the end of personal freedom a soulless mechanical monster compared with which the evils of capitalism—great as they are—must be called tolerable. It is an illusion that in a socialised state economy exploitation disappears. The truth is that it is shifted from the economic to the political field. The political “commissar” takes the place of the economic “boss”. Political bureaucratic hierarchy takes the place of economic competition. It is a complete misunderstanding of human nature to think that greed and lust for power would disappear in a fully state-socialist society. The temptation to misuse power is nowhere so great as in a totalitarian system because the state machinery cannot allow opposition or even criticism. In a completely nationalised economy the individual worker loses his freedom to choose his working- and living-place; he becomes a state-slave.
We do well to remember Montesquieu's great discovery the system of “division of powers” embodying his idea: le pouvoir arrête le pouvoir. Apart from the moral motive—which as a rule proves to be weak in general—it is the only safeguard of justice. This principle of Montesquieu presupposes a pluralist structure. Thus far the misuse of capitalist power has been checked by trade-unionism and democratic state interference. Both contain reserves which are not yet tapped. There are still great possibilities lying in the mechanisms of collective bargaining and of education for mutual understanding between labour and capital in the further democratisation of economy in a revision of the legal status of corporations and in the moderate equalising function of the state. The alternative “either capitalism or state socialism” is a product of propaganda of panic and of inadequate thinking.
As we have already said from the Christian faith no direct conclusions can be drawn for the solution of these complex and abstract problems. We have to beware of the short cut the idea that a specific affinity exists between Christian community and communism. Christian communalism is at the opposite extreme from State Communism. It is the expression of spiritual freedom. Nowhere in the Bible do we find the idea that corporate or national property is better than individual property. What we do find is the idea of stewardship and of social responsibility. As we have already said on the basis of Christianity there cannot be absolute property but only property regarded as trusteeship under God. This trusteeship includes responsibility for one's neighbour. The question however which legal system is the best makeshift for those true ethical motives is never touched just as the Bible does not say which form of political government is the best to check the misuse of political power.
Sometimes the abolition of the capitalistic system has been postulated from merely economic motives which are only in an indirect sense morally relevant. The idea was that only state-planned economies can avoid unemployment and economic crises. Certainly unemployment is a dreadful plague of modern society but it is an obvious error to think that state economy as such would cure that disease. Economic crises could be avoided by compulsory economic world-planning i.e. by a world state; but even then it is most doubtful whether it would have this beneficial effect. On the contrary it is highly probable that the clumsy functioning of state machinery would be a cause of permanent economic crises. But even if we take it for granted that nationalisation of industry and complete state control of economics could liberate society from the evil of unemployment this gain would be bought at too great a price the loss of economic freedom and ultimately of political freedom as well.
Why is it that the idea of Communism or State Socialism has captured the imagination of the working-class to such an extent as is the case in our day? First because the so-called free economy of the Western world has failed to a large extent to prove its capacity of providing for just distribution of national income and property and of giving the working-man an adequate share in management. The Christian Church ought to take a large share of responsibility for this tragic failure having omitted to instruct her lay-members about their responsibility for social justice and having accepted as a matter of course the development of a kind of individualistic economy which at bottom was irreconcilable with the Christian conception of personality and community. The Church should not however try to prove her repentance by supporting the ideology and programme of State Socialism or Communism which would necessarily produce a kind of society in which not only freedom but justice also finds no place. Secondly the Communist or State-Socialist idea appeals to a mentality which is almost exclusively fixed upon security and has lost the sense of personal freedom. This mentality is the product of secularisation i.e. of the loss of spiritual values particularly of the Christian faith in which both personal dignity and communal obligation are deeply rooted.
Thirdly the Communistic or State-Socialist idea is the logical consequence of an idea of man which identifies justice with equality and has no comprehension whatever of the element of subordination and differentiation which are inseparable from any live social order. This egalitarianism has created a deep resentment against anything which has even the faintest similarity with the family pattern of community. Of course Christianity has failed in supporting a kind of patriarchism and paternalism which in a technical world could not but work out in autocracy and economic tyranny. But the Church is supremely right in affirming that the family pattern is the Christian pattern of all social life. What needs to be seen is that the family pattern must be interpreted and worked out in our day in quite new forms doing justice to the legitimate claim of each member of the family to personal dignity and basic independence.
It is here that the Christian Church has a great task to fulfil. The Christian conception of man stands above the false alternative of individualistic liberalism or capitalism and collectivistic State Socialism or Communism. Christianity is absolutely unique in presenting a conception of man in which true personality and true community are not only firmly connected with one another but at bottom identical. Wherever a community is firmly grounded in Christian thinking neither individualistic capitalism nor collectivist Communism or State-Socialism are possible. The “third way” is inherent in the Christian conception of man itself. That is why Christianity is called upon to lead the way wherever the third way is seen as necessary and wherever out of economic life itself new schemes of social order emerge which are neither individualist nor collectivist.
At present collectivism is in the ascendent and individualism is on the wane. Christianity has the historical task of raising her voice against the great dangers for human personality as well as for community implied in the collectivist scheme. It can do so with even more conviction since it is becoming evident on experimental grounds that this is not a case of striking the right mean between justice and freedom. In the collectivist society the individual worker will get less than he has at present in a society which has long ago ceased to be purely capitalistic less both in material reward for his work and in political social and cultural freedom. Collectivism means before all enslavement; but it also means poverty. What is encouraging for those who survey the present evolution in the social sphere is the fact that amongst those who used to be Marxian Socialists a deep change is taking place away from Marxism in its ideological as well as its economic and political programme. There is an obvious convergence of the thought and will of those who are trying to find a truly social liberalism and those who are out for a truly liberal Socialism. And it is certainly not by chance that where this reorientation takes place a new openness of mind towards Christianity becomes apparent.
Up to now we have been speaking of the problems arising from differences of economic power. We have now to turn to the other great problem that of excessive valuation of material goods as such. It is obvious that the capitalistic structure of economic life has intensified the acquisitive instinct and increased the striving for wealth. This practical materialism however is unlikely to be discarded in a nationalised economy. Against the auri sacra fames State Socialism is no medicine. The valuation of material goods is independent of legal structure and depends on the whole conception of life. Greed lust for property is the most direct manifestation of worldliness. The man who does not believe in God and eternal life is likely to be more intent upon material goods than the man to whom the word “Seek ye first the kingdom of God” is a reality. Of course it might be objected that many Christians have been misers and profiteers. But let us beware of confusion; the man who is a miser and profiteer is ipso facto not a real Christian. This criterion is unmistakable in the New Testament. One might even say it is the first criterion. He to whom God's Kingdom is a reality cannot be a money hunter and a money hunter cannot take seriously the Kingdom of God. You cannot love both God and Mammon. But where faith in God disappears the vacuum which it leaves has to be filled with something. It need not be money. It may be a high spiritual good. But it may be money and it is very probable that in most cases it is money which fills that vacuum. Spiritual goods are rarely capable of filling the heart when the basis of spirituality God has disappeared. Loss of faith usually means that Mammon becomes God. The practical materialism of the Occident is a direct and provable consequence of secularisation.
We must say in this connection a few words about a famous theory pointing in the opposite direction: Max Weber's thesis about the connection between Calvinism and capitalism which was accepted and spread widely by Troeltsch and also though in a modified form by Tawney. This theory seems to me a very dangerous half-truth. It cannot be doubted that the Calvinist-Puritan conception of the Christian life according to which the elect has to prove his election by his life combined with the Calvinist emphasis on self-discipline and self-restraint has contributed to the formation of capital; more exactly to an increase of material goods which not being consumed were available for the expansion of production. It is obvious that these motives combined with other factors created conditions favourable to the development of the capitalistic system. But at the same time these motives were strictly opposed to what is popularly called the capitalistic spirit. The true Calvinists and Puritans were by no means money-grubbers but energetic business men who regarded themselves as stewards of God and therefore responsible to the community. It is not Calvinistic faith but on the contrary the decline of this faith and progressive secularisation which led to the greediness which one has in mind when speaking in a critical sense about capitalism. The Quakers perhaps afford the best example. By thrift sober living hard work and indubitable honesty they became most successful business men and acquired considerable wealth. They did not however succumb to the capitalist spirit but proved by example that even within a capitalistic structure the relation between labour and capital can be just and humane wherever the power inherent in that system is not abused but used for good.
The capitalistic system however did not develop because of men who worked much and saved the fruit of their work but because world trade and industry demanded the creation of credit. There have always been hardworking and at the same time thrifty people before Calvinism and outside it. The particular development of the capitalist system in the so-called Calvinist countries has very little to do with Calvinism and is primarily due to the fact that these countries afforded the most favourable conditions for world trade and industry and that they were populated by a type of people which in many other respects proved to be particularly energetic. This view of things is confirmed by the fact that the development of high capitalism took place in an age when the Christian faith whether Calvinistic or not was on the wane. It is the combination of the credit system and industrialism with that mammonist spirit which is the result of secularisation that created the kind of capitalism of which the Western world should be ashamed. The tiny bit of truth lying in Weber's thesis is almost irrelevant compared with the enormous confusion which it has produced and the great injustice which it has done to Calvinist faith.
The economic problems i.e. the problems connected with the production and possession of material goods have become so portentous in our time because the development of world trade machine industry and the credit system took place in an age when the Western world was beginning to lose its religious basis and when therefore money-making and the possession of money seemed more important than anything else. Furthermore this development took place within a society in which an individualistic conception of life worked towards the dissolution of community life. It can be easily understood that a society which was about to lose its religious and moral basis was hardly capable of solving the enormous social problems which the industrial revolution and the break-down of the patriarchal system had created. It can hardly be doubted that a truly Christian society could have overcome these difficulties at an earlier stage and would thus have prevented some of the worst features of the present Western civilisation. For it is the Christian faith that contains all the necessary forces of direction and healing which are adequate even to a very dynamic economic life: a strong consciousness of personal responsibility and freedom the willingness to serve one's fellow man and the limitation of economic interest by the faith in a higher eternal life.