Introduction to Notes on Socialism

Part 1 of 11 in the series Notes on Socialism

The following is an introduction to the series of notes on socialism. Its companion series is Socialism vs Capitalism and if possible, should be read together to get an understanding of these two competing political economic theories.

This series began as an investigation into the roots of modern socialism. Many trace its “origins in the French Revolution of 1789 and the changes brought about by the Industrial Revolution.”1 In fact, the term “socialism” is often “attributed to Pierre Leroux in 1834, who called socialism ‘the doctrine which would not give up any of the principles of Liberty, Equality, Fraternity of the French Revolution of 1789.’”2

The Law of Consecration and Socialism Compared

Zion’s Cooperative Mercantile Institution From a religious perspective, socialism is of interest to members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints because it bears some similarities with various attempts by the Church to implement the “law of consecration”. For example,

The Lord revealed several purposes for the law of consecration: to bring the Church to stand independent of all other institutions3; to strengthen Zion, adorning her in beautiful garments, as a bride prepared and worthy of the bridegroom4; and to prepare the Saints for a place in the Celestial Kingdom.5

Commenting on this subject, President John Taylor stated that consecration is a celestial law and, when observed, its adherents become a celestial people (JD 17:177-81). Thus, men and women today can become like as those of Enoch’s day, “of one heart and one mind,…with no poor among them.”6 Orson Pratt, an early apostle, observed that if the Lord’s people aspire to the Celestial Kingdom, they must begin to learn the order of life that is there (JD 2:102-103).7

Since Zion designates both a place of gathering8 and an ideal society where “the pure in heart” live in harmony9, it bears many resemblances to utopian societies – real and imagined – of the past.10

Continuing, John A. Widtsoe, an apostle, explained how the law of consecration was implemented in the early Church:

Those who joined such an order were to place all their possessions in a common treasury – the rich their wealth, the poor their pittance. Then each member was to receive a sufficient portion – called an “inheritance” – from the common treasury to enable that person to continue in trade, business, or profession as desired. The farmer would receive land and implements; the tradesman, tools and materials; the merchant, necessary capital; the professional person, instruments, books, and the like. Members working for others would receive proportionate interests in the enterprises they served. No one would be without property. All would have an inheritance. (Widtsoe, pp. 302-303).11

Some have confused these attempts by the Church to implement the law of consecration with socio-economic systems such as socialism and communism. In this regard, Ezra Taft Benson warned:

“Zion cannot be built up unless it is by the principles of the law of the celestial kingdom.”12 Much has been written about this law and its attempted implementation in the early history of the Church; and much deception has taken root, even among some of our members, because of misinformed opinion or misguided interpretations. Some view it as merely an economic alternative to capitalism or the free enterprise system, others as an outgrowth of early communal experiments in America. Such a view is not only shortsighted but tends to diminish in importance a binding requirement for entrance into the celestial kingdom. The law of consecration is a celestial law, not an economic experiment.13

Socialism in America Though there are a number of similarities between these two systems, there are many important – and subtle differences. These were outlined in a talk by Marion G. Romney in 1966. After reviewing the major socialist factions, he noted:

The differences in forms and policies of socialism occur principally in the manner in which they seek to implement their theories.

They all advocate:

(1) That private ownership of the vital means of production be abolished and that all such property “pass under some form of coordinated public control.”

(2) That the power of the state be used to achieve their aims.

(3) “That with a change in the control of industry will go a change in the motives which operate in the industrial system. . . .” (Ibid.)14

Then, after reviewing the principles of the United Order he noted the similarities and differences between the two systems:

Comparisons and Contrasts

Similarities

The following are similarities: Both

(1) deal with production and distribution of goods;

(2) aim to promote the well-being of men by eliminating their economic inequalities;

(3) envision the elimination of the selfish motives in our private capitalistic industrial system.

Differences

Now the differences:

(1) The cornerstone of the United Order is belief in God and acceptance of him as Lord of the earth and the author of the United Order.

Socialism, wholly materialistic, is founded in the wisdom of men and not of God. Although all socialists may not be atheists, none of them in theory or practice seek the Lord to establish his righteousness.

(2) The United Order is implemented by the voluntary free-will actions of men, evidenced by a consecration of all their property to the Church of God.

One time the Prophet Joseph Smith asked a question by the brethren about the inventories they were taking. His answer was to the effect, “You don’t need to be concerned about the inventories. Unless a man is willing to consecrate everything he has, he doesn’t come into the United Order.” (Documentary History of the Church, Vol. 7, pp. 412-13.) On the other hand, socialism is implemented by external force, the power of the state.

(3) In harmony with church belief, as set forth in the Doctrine and Covenants, “that no government can exist in peace, except such laws are framed and held inviolate as will secure to each individual the free exercise of conscience, the right and control of property”15, the United Order is operated upon the principle of private ownership and individual management.

God-given Agency Preserved in United Order

Thus in both implementation and ownership and management of property, the United Order preserves to men their God-given agency, while socialism deprives them of it.

(4) The United Order is non-political.

Socialism is political, both in theory and practice. It is thus exposed to, and riddled by, the corruption that plagues and finally destroys all political governments that undertake to abridge man’s agency.

(5) A righteous people is a prerequisite to the United Order.

Socialism argues that it as a system will eliminate the evils of the profit motive.

The United Order exalts the poor and humbles the rich. In the process both are sanctified. The poor, released from the bondage and humiliating limitations of poverty, are enabled as free men to rise to their full potential, both temporally and spiritually. The rich, by consecration and by imparting of their surplus for the benefit of the poor, not by constraint but willingly as an act of free will, evidence that charity for their fellowmen characterized by Mormon as “the pure love of Christ.” (Moro. 7:47.)16

As a result of these key differences, Church authorities often warned of the effects of “creeping socialism”17 and predicted that if American citizens were not vigilant, “we will have a change of government.”18

With that background, what follows is a series of posts on modern socialism which includes the French utopian socialist Saint-Simon’s report that his dead ancestor visited him in a dream and told Saint-Simon that he was destined for greatness; an account of a visit by one of the followers of Robert Owens with Joseph Smith; statements by modern socialist philosophers and thinkers; interesting parallels concerning Joseph of Egypt; a discussion on the problem of “private property” and the redistribution of wealth; and a review of ancient and recent attempts to make pervasive socialized medicine, or what is euphemistically called today health care reform.

For additional information, see the many posts categorized tagged under socialism.

Notes and Sources:

Note: Although the Church operates in a number of socialist countries19, its “mission is to preach the gospel of Jesus Christ . . . [and] is neutral in matters of party politics. This applies in all of the many nations in which it is established.”20

  1. “History of Socialism”. Wikipedia. 9 Jan 2009.
  2. “Socialism”. Wikipedia. 9 Jan 2009.
  3. Doctrine and Covenants 78:14
  4. Doctrine and Covenants 33:17; 58:11; 65:3; 82:14, 18; etc.
  5. Doctrine and Covenants 78:7
  6. Moses 7:18
  7. Hirschi, Frank W. “Law of Consecration”. 1992. Encyclopedia of Mormonism. 9 Jan 2009.
  8. See the post about redeeming Zion.
  9. Sorensen, A. Don. “Zion”. 1992. Encyclopedia of Mormonism. 9 Jan 2009.
  10. Nibley, Hugh W. “The Utopians.” Neal A. Maxwell Institute for Religious Scholarship. 9 Jan 2009.
  11. Ibid. As one example, see the post about President Wilford Woodruff and the law of consecration. For additional information see Israelsen, L. Dwight. “United Orders”. 1992. Encyclopedia of Mormonism. 9 Jan 2009.
  12. Doctrine and Covenants 105:5
  13. Benson, Ezra Taft. ”A Vision and a Hope for the Youth of Zion”. 12 Apr 1977. BYU Speeches. 9 Jan 2009.
  14. Romney, Marion G. “Is Socialism the United Order?”. April 1966. LDS Conservative. 9 Jan 2009.
  15. Doctrine and Covenants 134:2
  16. Ibid.
  17. For example, see “The Welfare State – Creeping Socialism”. Inspired Constitution. 9 Jan 2009.
  18. Smith, Joseph Fielding. “The Constitution – A Glorious Standard”. April 1950. Inspired Constitution. 9 Jan 2009. See also the post on the U.S. Constitution.
  19. As just one example, the Church has approximately 144,000 members, 4 missions and 1 temple in Venezuela which has historically had a Federal Republic type of government. However, as noted in a 10 Jan 2007 USA Today story, President Hugo Chavez promises a socialist Venezuela as he starts new 6 year term.
  20. LDS Political Neutrality”. LDS Newsroom. 9 Jan 2009.
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  1. Michael Towns’s avatar

    Great post. I always take note of your political/economic posts because they are always spot on and interesting.

    One thing I am curious about: why is there a complete absence of talks about the Constitution these days from the General Authorities? It seems that when Ezra Taft Benson passed, so did our institutional interest in preserving the Constitution.

    I am concerned because of what I have seen in the US the past several years: accelerated socialism in every aspect of our lives. Surely this is a threat to our liberties? Isn’t a threat to liberty a threat to freedom of religion?

  2. Greg’s avatar

    Hi Michael – Thanks for your comments. I’m definitely not qualified to answer your first question, but I believe Elder Dallin H. Oaks’ recent talk on Religious Freedom certainly means that our religious liberties are being threatened as people of faith.

  3. Michael Towns’s avatar

    I know, I am just hoping for reiterations of what the Brethren used to say back in the 50s and 60s. Some LDS I know personally do not believe those declarations, simply because they were stated 60 years ago.

  4. Molly’s avatar

    Greg: This is a very well thought out and researched post. Thanks! I hope you don’t mind that I’ve shared it on our Facebook page.

  5. Greg’s avatar

    Thanks Molly. I hope it is useful. Thanks for the link from your FB page.

  6. Carl Youngblood’s avatar

    Michael, I think it’s also important to study church history during the time that Elder Benson (pre-president) was making these statements. Not all of the twelve agreed with his political views and it was a source of private contention in the quorum and among other church members, both general authorities and regular members. Many John Birchers used Elder Benson’s comments to go even further and engage in a lot of destructive and just plain cooky extremism. A good book to read for a detailed analysis of this period is David O. McKay and the Rise of Modern Mormonism.

    Greg, about socialism, although I understand that the teachings you refer to convey differences, I think you are also overlooking some important things.

    First, I think it is simplistic to simply state that the celestial law is completely voluntary. You volunteer to enter into it, but there is no guarantee that you won’t afterwards be asked or even compelled to do something that you personally disagree with, as many members were who participated in various united order attempts during earlier times.

    We also have significant precedent for purportedly inspired yet coercive socialist policies, such as the law of Moses, in which farmers were required to leave some crops unharvested for the poor and animals to eat, and all debts were to be forgiven every seven years. It was even against the law to say you wouldn’t lend during the sixth year because it wouldn’t be paid back. These are all examples of a prophet, supposedly in accordance with God’s will, implementing socialist policies that were coercive to some degree. They were at least coercive in the sense that disobedience was accompanied by severe penalties.

    I’m not necessarily saying I agree with these policies but just that those who would appeal to revelation to attack the systems of government we currently have must recognize that those who live by appeals to authority, to paraphrase Jesus’ saying, shall also die by them. There will always be limitations to revelation, and if we appeal to successes then we should also be willing to acknowledge failures. Many people are so bound by past teachings that they are unable to accept the further light and knowledge that could be revealed to us.

    Some people argue that the Law of Moses somehow “doesn’t count” because it was a lesser law and that we should only accept celestial systems of government. To that I would respond that only those who are worthy of the celestial kingdom will enter into it, and I think everyone would agree that most people, members included, are not ready for it. To insist on celestial policies for people who are ungovernable by them is to make perfection the enemy of the good.

    I would go even further to say that ultimately truth, in my opinion, is what works. If something is not practicable or has not yet been fully realized then it is disingenuous, nay, uncharitable to claim that it is “true” in an absolute sense. We should always be willing to admit that we hope these principles are true but are willing to discard them if further light and knowledge, further experience, etc. demonstrate that better principles are available. This is what true Mormonism is according to Joseph Smith, to embrace truth, let it come from whence it may.

    I believe we should only accept laws based on claims that have been empirically verified to a reasonable degree, even claims made by prophets. If we strongly feel that something a prophet has revealed is true, then we should work with all our might to realize that vision, and only when we have actually realized it, or only to the extent that we have actually realized it, can we claim with authority that it was a true principle.

    Conversely, if we fail to realize a prophetic vision due to our own failures, this doesn’t necessarily mean the principle is untrue but we should recognize that it is also dishonest to claim it is true if it has never actually been implemented, at least according to our knowledge.

    The most successful prophets are those who succeed in creating conditions that foster the real-world implementation of their revelations. I think it is completely fair to judge a prophet by the outcome of his or her revelations, and that honesty requires us to recognize that prophets, not even Joseph and his successors, were successful in all their revelations or undertakings.

    This is one of the things I love about Brigham Young. He wasn’t afraid to prophesy, even though many of his prophecies were wrong or at least dubious. He was willing to say something was true one week and deny it the next, but he was always exploring, learning and growing, and he was getting closer to truth in many ways. I believe he learned this from Joseph Smith. In fact, I think the only way we can grow in the spirit of prophecy is when we’re not afraid to fail at it.

    I think that it is fair to call into question the viability of the United Order, and to recognize that it was at least a limited understanding of God’s purposes that could (and probably has) been superceded by further light and knowledge that has been poured out during this the dispensation of the fulness of times. We should not be too quick to discard the many inspired discoveries in political science, economic theory and other areas that have allowed us in these latter days to experience higher levels of prosperity and lower levels of violence and social upheaval than before. (If you think this is not the case, please watch this: http://www.ted.com/talks/steven_pinker_on_the_myth_of_violence.html.)

    If a system of government ultimately proves incapable of effectuating the salvation of the entire human race, then it should be modified and revised to work better. One of the most frustrating things about politics is actually one of the things that makes it work: compromise. If we insist on perfection now, we throw the baby out with the bathwater. The only way we’re going to get to Zion is by taking baby steps towards it, implementing laws and policies that help us get there. I’m not trying to claim here that all our laws and policies do this. No doubt many of them take us further away. But I think it is dishonest and uncharitable to be so ideological that we fail to acknowledge or even notice data that contradicts our ideology.

    Ultimately I think a good Christian will adopt policies and strategies sometimes that borrow from both conservative and liberal playbooks, always seeking to refine what we have and never letting perfection be the enemy of the good.

    I apologize if this comment was a little long-winded. These are difficult thoughts for me to try to convey.

  7. Alison Moore Smith’s avatar

    I look forward to reading this series, Greg. Good stuff and I appreciate the references. I tried to touch on this (very lightly) on a Times & Seasons post a few months back and you’d have thought I was preaching the Holy Trinity. Wow.

    Anyway, Sam and I are writing another article about this and I look forward to reading more of your sources. Thanks.

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