Fridays Thursdays with Benedict: Chapters 33-34, Why We Are All (And Should Be) Communists

Given that tomorrow is Good Friday, we'll do Benedict a day early this week.
The life of Benedict's monastery was communistic, similar to the life of the early Christians:

Acts 4.32-35
All the believers were one in heart and mind. No one claimed that any of their possessions was their own, but they shared everything they had. With great power the apostles continued to testify to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus. And God’s grace was so powerfully at work in them all that there were no needy persons among them. For from time to time those who owned land or houses sold them, brought the money from the sales and put it at the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to anyone who had need.
This mode of life is described in Chapters 33 and 34 of The Rule of St. Benedict. In Chapter 33 private ownership is rejected in favor of communal sharing:
1Above all, this evil practice must be uprooted and removed from the monastery. 2We mean that without an order from the abbot, no one may presume to give, receive 3or retain anything as his own...6All things should be the common possession of all...
In Chapter 34 distribution according to need is discussed:
1It is written: "Distribution was made to each one as he has need" (Acts 4:35). 2By this we do not imply that there should be favoritism--God forbid--but rather consideration for weaknesses. 3Whoever needs less should thank God and not be distressed, 4but whoever needs more should feel humble because of his weakness...
Now you may not be aware of this, but the label "communism" is somewhat controversial in the United States of America. But I led with that label regarding the early church because we are all, in many areas of our lives, communistic. And that's a good thing.

The psychologist Alan Fiske has argued that human relations can be described as one of four types:

  1. Communal sharing
  2. Equity matching
  3. Authority ranking
  4. Market Pricing
For most of human history human relationships were dominated by the first three. Market pricing is a relatively recent development, at least in the ubiquitous form we observe today where markets are increasingly the medium though which we relate to each other.

Communal sharing is what we'd call communism. The guiding idea was articulated by Karl Marx: "From each according to his ability, to each according to his need." This is the way we relate to each other in family life, a kinship-based relationality adopted by the early church and the Christian monastic movement. Everybody pitches in as they are able and everyone gets what they need depending upon their need. Debits and favors aren't tracked (that's Equity matching, tit-for-tat reciprocity). Orders aren't being given to subordinates or slaves (Authority ranking). We aren't charging for services (Market pricing). If my wife is sick and I nurse her for a few days I don't say "You owe me one" or "That'll be $50." Neither does my wife command me to nurse her. When she or my boys are in need I help. When I am in need they help me. That's communal sharing, communism. 

To be sure, it is impossible to create communal sharing relations among a group of strangers. Lacking a familial bond strangers opt for other forms of relationality: reciprocity norms ("you scratch my back and I'll scratch yours."), command structures, or markets. The observation here is that while these forms of relationality are effective in coordinating strangers they also signal a sort of failure, the dissolution of the family bond. We are not brothers and sisters. We are citizens, subordinates and customers. We respond to orders, exchange favors, or give each other money.

But even within these authority or marketplace structures the deep bedrock of communistic relationality never really goes away. It's always there operating in the background and supporting the web of human sociability and community. This is the argument made by David Graeber in his book Debt. In fact, Graeber argues that a "baseline communism" is even what make capitalism work:
"[C]ommunism" is not some magical utopia, and neither does it have anything to do with ownership of the means of production. It is something that exists right now--that exists, to some degree, in any human society, although there has never been one in which everything has been organized in that way, and it would be difficult to imagine how there could be. All of us act like communists a good deal of the time. None of us acts like a communist consistently. "Communistic society"--in the sense of a society organized exclusively on that single principle--could never exist. But all social systems, even economic systems like capitalism, have always been built on top of a bedrock of actually-existing communism.

Starting, as I say, from the principle of "from each according to their abilities, to each according to their needs" allows us to look past the question of individual or private ownership (which is often little more than formal legality anyway) and at much more immediate and practical questions of who has access to what sorts of things and under what conditions. Whenever it is the operative principle, even if it's just two people who are interacting, we can say we are in the presence of this sort of communism.

Almost everyone follows this principle if they are collaborating on some common project...The reason is simple efficiency...if you really care about getting something done, the most efficient way to go about it is obviously to allocate tasks by ability and give people whatever they need to do them. One might even say that it's one of the scandals of capitalism that most capitalist firms, internally, operate communistically...

[I]n the immediate wake of great disasters--a flood, a blackout, or an economic collapse--people tend to behave the same way, reverting to a rough-and-ready communism. However briefly, hierarchies and markets and the like become luxuries that no one can afford. Anyone who has lived through such a moment can speak to their peculiar qualities, the way that strangers become sisters and brothers and human society itself seems to be reborn. This is important, because it shows that we are not simply talking about cooperation. In fact, communism is the foundation of all human sociability. It is what makes society possible...
The point being in all this is that the church, along with Christian monastic communities, is a place where this sort of "baseline communism" is cultivated and enjoyed. A place where family relationality--communal sharing per Fiske or baseline communism per Graeber--is the norm we are striving for. In this sense, we are always striving to be communists.

This entry was posted by Richard Beck. Bookmark the permalink.

6 thoughts on “Fridays Thursdays with Benedict: Chapters 33-34, Why We Are All (And Should Be) Communists”

  1. Neat. Do any of these authors deal with gift economies? Gift economies strike me as something of a halfway house between equity matching and communal sharing: to suggest that a gift is a form of equity matching seems like an insult, but there is also an expectation of a rough sort of reciprocity over time. If this rough reciprocity isn't honored, gifts tend to dry up in time. Also interesting theologically, because there is so much gift language in the New Testament.

    I'd also note that most families are communal to some degree, but traditionally authority ranking has been a central component of family organization. In a similar way, many firms are internally organized in a way that includes both communism and authority ranking. Even if the initial apostles were highly egalitarian in their practice, the institutional structure of the churches they founded follow the same pattern. And in practice, when people have tried to generalize familial communism at the level of the state, this familiar pattern of some communism/some authority ranking re-emerges.

    One other thought: disasters and external threats seem to be the main way to precipitate this state of organic communism, or anything vaguely resembling it. You also see a similar impact in WWII: in both England and the U.S. the threat of total war seemed to be a central element in precipitating a stunningly rapid collapse of privilege and class differences. Any examples of this kind of organic, spontaneous, "freely willed" communism arising on a large scale in the absence of a large external threat?

  2. Graeber does talk a bit about gift economies. One of the points I recall from that discussion is that gifts, typically, aren't gifts strictly understood. To be sure, a great deal of work is done to make sure the "gift" looks like a gift. For example, the timing is a key thing to manage to make sure the "gift" isn't obviously an act of reciprocity. And yet, deep reciprocity and sharing norms are working beneath the service. That doesn't invalidate your observation. I'm just sharing something I took away from Graeber regarding the anthropological research in "gift" economies.

  3. "One might even say that it's one of the scandals of capitalism that most capitalist firms, internally, operate communistically..."

    I don't think it's as "scandal of capitalism" as much as it is a failure to understand the division of labor and just how un-individualistic free markets really are (right-wing and Randian nonsense about the "self-made man" notwithstanding). One of the benefits of voluntary economics is that it fosters cooperation and togetherness. In fact, you might say that "voluntary economics" is just another name for people working together -- though the life of a monastic community is deliberate, whereas the economic activity of the broader populace is more of a spontaneous order.

  4. Ummm...the key word being "voluntary," which presupposes at least individual volition, if not more.

    Etymologically yours,


  5. First up, I want to share just how much I have been loving the Fridays with St. Benedict. Being a Catholic with a deep and profound interest in The Rule, as well as one who (tries to) do the Liturgy of the Hours, your perspective on this wonderful work has been both enlightening and delightful.

    No quibbles here with your argument above, but perhaps to build on it, working from a framework of comunal sharing not only starts with, but creates and builds on a philosophy of abundance. When we operate from a philosophy of scarcity, then authoritarian/favors/market rate prevail, because there is a scarcity of goods to meet our needs and exchange is necessary to stay alive. However, when we operate from the philosophy of abundance (such as promised by God - "that we may have life in abundance"/Jn 3:16 - alas, the part that is seldom quoted), then comunal sharing is not only easier, it's more desirable.

    I also couldn't help appreciating the irony that the most vocally "Christian" groups in this country would be having a hissy fit with the statement in your title. Perhaps it's one of my many failings, but that kind of hypocrisy makes me crazy. Please pray for me.

Leave a Reply