The early Christian community evidently practiced a form of communism. The book of Acts testifies to this.
The community of believers was of one heart and mind, and no one claimed that any of his possessions was his own, but they had everything in common. With great power the apostles bore witness to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and great favor was accorded them all. There was no needy person among them, for those who owned property or houses would sell them, bring the proceeds of the sale, and put them at the feet of the apostles, and they were distributed to each according to need. [Acts 4:32-35]
Clearly, one may wonder what led them to do this. The answer, I believe, is deep within the nature of the Gospel of the Kingdom of God taught by Jesus. The fact that the world experimented with communism on numerous occasions throughout history, and that none of these experiments proved to have staying power, seems, on the surface, to raise doubts about the teaching. I will try to show in this brief essay that the nature of the teaching is, in fact, primarily theological and essential to the kerygma. The world has not only not grasped the true significance and purpose of the teaching, it has even led so many to a form of what may be termed historic idolatry (with millions of deaths at the hands of ideologues determined to make their experiments "work"). Nevertheless, the teaching itself has not been invalidated, only the historical misunderstandings and abuses that have been associated with it. This, however, is typical of all heresy.
To grasp the nature of the teaching, we would do well to review what Jesus taught about Christian service and its connection to the Eucharist, also known (significantly!) as "Holy Communion".
So when he had washed their feet [and] put his garments back on and reclined at table again, he said to them, "Do you realize what I have done for you? You call me 'teacher' and 'master,' and rightly so, for indeed I am. If I, therefore, the master and teacher, have washed your feet, you ought to wash one another's feet. I have given you a model to follow, so that as I have done for you, you should also do.
Amen, amen, I say to you, no slave is greater than his master nor any messenger greater than the one who sent him. If you understand this, blessed are you if you do it. [John 13:12-17]
Jesus uses this symbolic service of washing "one another's feet" as an image intimately connected with Holy Communion. St. Paul also draws this same connection.
When you meet in one place, then, it is not to eat the Lord's supper, for in eating, each one goes ahead with his own supper, and one goes hungry while another gets drunk.
Do you not have houses in which you can eat and drink? Or do you show contempt for the church of God and make those who have nothing feel ashamed? What can I say to you? Shall I praise you? In this matter I do not praise you. [1 Cor 11:20-22]
And from here, St. Paul describes the sacrificial nature of the Eucharist, drawing the conclusion that receiving the precious Body and Blood of the Lord after showing such selfishness is a grievous insult to the Lord.
Jesus, himself, spoke about the nature of such selfishness, and declared his sense of identity with those in need in a famous passage in the Gospel of Matthew.
Then he will say to those on his left, "Depart from me, you accursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. For I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me no drink, a stranger and you gave me no welcome, naked and you gave me no clothing, ill and in prison, and you did not care for me."
Then they will answer and say, "Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or ill or in prison, and not minister to your needs?"
He will answer them, "Amen, I say to you, what you did not do for one of these least ones, you did not do for me."
And these will go off to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life. [Matthew 25:41-46]
Thus, it is clear that Jesus taught us to think of our service to others in need as service of Him. We can find the deepest meaning of this teaching in the great Eucharistic Discourse in the 6th chapter of the Gospel of John and in his profound prayer of unity before his passion and death, found in chapter 17 of that Gospel.
Everyone who listens to my Father and learns from him comes to me. Not that anyone has seen the Father except the one who is from God; he has seen the Father. Amen, amen, I say to you, whoever believes has eternal life.
I am the bread of life. Your ancestors ate the manna in the desert, but they died; this is the bread that comes down from heaven so that one may eat it and not die.
I am the living bread that came down from heaven; whoever eats this bread will live forever; and the bread that I will give is my flesh for the life of the world. [John 6:45b-51]
I pray not only for them, but also for those who will believe in me through their word, so that they may all be one, as you, Father, are in me and I in you, that they also may be in us, that the world may believe that you sent me. And I have given them the glory you gave me, so that they may be one, as we are one, I in them and you in me, that they may be brought to perfection as one, that the world may know that you sent me, and that you loved them even as you loved me.
Father, they are your gift to me. I wish that where I am they also may be with me, that they may see my glory that you gave me, because you loved me before the foundation of the world. Righteous Father, the world also does not know you, but I know you, and they know that you sent me. I made known to them your name and I will make it known, that the love with which you loved me may be in them and I in them. [John 17:20-26]
Thus, we find in the Eucharistic discourse, that receiving Jesus within us raises us to a new kind of existence, which he describes as "eternal life." And, indeed, it is deeply significant that this eternal life is consequent to receiving Jesus within us. Jesus' prayer of unity clarifies what this is about being perfected through a process of internalizing the love of Jesus, himself, so that our love will be elevated to divinely infused love, loving others as God loves us! That participation in divine love is a prerequisite to sharing in divine life. It is what the Church has always called holy communion. This is the fundamental meaning of the communal life of the early Church described in Acts 4. It is a living out of the holy communion that only infused divine love can and will enable! [Note, "divinely infused virtue" is about God living in us, as Jesus' prayer invokes: "I in them" via the Eucharist and "You in me" through his conception, birth, life, anointing by the Holy Spirit, mission, passion, death and resurrection.]
Selfishness clearly tears us away from the path of growing in holy communion. More than that, engaging in a pretence of holy communion is deeply offensive to God, as Acts 5:1-11 testifies. Moreover, St. Peter clarifies the truly voluntary nature of sacrificial love. Love cannot be compelled by government and true sacrificial love is only possible through the gift of God's grace and through the desire to live in that love!
A man named Ananias, however, with his wife Sapphira, sold a piece of property. He retained for himself, with his wife's knowledge, some of the purchase price, took the remainder, and put it at the feet of the apostles.
But Peter said, "Ananias, why has Satan filled your heart so that you lied to the holy Spirit and retained part of the price of the land? While it remained unsold, did it not remain yours? And when it was sold, was it not still under your control? Why did you contrive this deed? You have lied not to human beings, but to God."
When Ananias heard these words, he fell down and breathed his last, and great fear came upon all who heard of it. The young men came and wrapped him up, then carried him out and buried him. [Acts 5:1-6]
I would argue that the lure of secular communism is, in fact, deeply offensive to God because it fails to recognize that real communion (and real communism) is only possible through God's grace. Jesus clarifies this in his teaching about the lure of riches.
Jesus said to him, "If you wish to be perfect, go, sell what you have and give to [the] poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me."
When the young man heard this statement, he went away sad, for he had many possessions.
Then Jesus said to his disciples, "Amen, I say to you, it will be hard for one who is rich to enter the kingdom of heaven. Again I say to you, it is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for one who is rich to enter the kingdom of God."
When the disciples heard this, they were greatly astonished and said, "Who then can be saved?"
Jesus looked at them and said, "For human beings this is impossible, but for God all things are possible."
This desire of humanity to chase glory and an ideal existence through personal and collective effort, and without reference to the will of God, however, has been in our blood from the very beginning of our life on earth. The Old Testament illustrated this vanity in Genesis 11, the story of the Tower of Babel. The preamble, about a common language, should remind us of our post-scientific culture, which still relies on mathematics and the language of scientific method. The referene to bricks (the building material of the Egyptian overlords of Moses' time) in place of stone (building material given by God) likely embodies a cultural comment, such as replacing Natural Law with human fiat in the building of a culture. God's decision to confuse their language is also a comment, but reflects the perspective of the ancient Israelites that God acts directly to "cast down the mighty from their thrones" and "lift up the lowly." To apply to the Babel story, we can simply interpret this as God's decision not to prosper the works of the prideful. (Cf. Psalm 127) This may remind us of the bursting of economic bubbles which were engineered by government controls and ambitious government policies. We may also be mindful of the divisive atmosphere induced by pride and the impact this has on multilateral cooperation schemes.
The whole world had the same language and the same words. When they were migrating from the east, they came to a valley in the land of Shinar and settled there. They said to one another, "Come, let us mold bricks and harden them with fire." They used bricks for stone, and bitumen for mortar. Then they said, "Come, let us build ourselves a city and a tower with its top in the sky, and so make a name for ourselves; otherwise we shall be scattered all over the earth."
The LORD came down to see the city and the tower that the people had built. Then the LORD said: If now, while they are one people and all have the same language, they have started to do this, nothing they presume to do will be out of their reach. Come, let us go down and there confuse their language, so that no one will understand the speech of another.
So the LORD scattered them from there over all the earth, and they stopped building the city. That is why it was called Babel, because there the LORD confused the speech of all the world. From there the LORD scattered them over all the earth. [Genesis 11:1-9]
Acts 4 depicts a social order that requires no human policing. Ananias and Sapphira challenge that social order with their duplicity, but no human agency is evoked to end it. St. Peter provides only commentary on God's intervention. This is very different, in principle, from Marx and Engel's delusional notion of the withering away of the state, which appeals only to the inexorable march of history (dialectical materialism, a distinctly secular delusion which effectively treats history as a "god" intent on perfecting itself), together with Jean Jacques Rousseau's notion of the naturl perfectibility of man, to "explain" its causality.
While Acts 4 depicts "communion" as a sign of God's favor, Marxism depicts it as what systems theorists describe as an emergent phenomenon, enabled naurally by certain historical preconditions. This is of a piece with the controversy between creationism and blind evolutionism, which describes ordered reality itself as an emergent phenomenon in which order emerges on its own from total chaos. There is no thought given to God's original design of material reality because, of course, "there is no God" to provide that design. So the Marxists envision the ideal order of man as emerging from the chaos of history through a mysterious "process" simply taken as given.
The laws of entropy (both physical and informational), however, argue that such visions and such ideal orders quickly deteriorate. History shows that republics degenerate, often into tyrannical empire building. The vain ambitions of arrogant leaders predominate over common sense and sound managerial and governmental principles. No world order, no matter how "new" it claims to be, is, or can be, permanent.
Much of the difficult the world faced in its march toward World War I stemmed from the habit of governments to conduct their affairs in secret, including secret treaties of mutual assistance in time of war. That secrecy was of a piece with the doling out of favors and preferences associated with empire buiding. World politics was viewed at the time as a zero-sum game. Countries that failed to grab colonial empires were thought to lose the battle of historical dominance. The result was a war nobody wanted and nobody could prevent. The aftermath was a world in social turmoil that continues to play out, even in the 21st century, a century after the conflict, thanks to the arrogance of the map drawers and the judges-left-standing at Versailles.
Scientists, mathematicians and engineers of the Manhattan Project were reported to have had conscience pangs at the first unleashing of nuclear war. Yet, bad ideas, once unleashed and embraced, have a mind of their own, and science has a way of outstripping the capacity of humanity to govern it wisely. The discovery of genetics spawned the eugenics movement, one of the most arrogant movements ever conceived by a sorry humanity, a movement that played itself out in the Nazi death camps, and continues to play itself out in the abortion and euthanasia of those considered unfit to justify their existence. IVF, the presumed savior of couples with fertility issues, opened the gates of laboratory manipulation of human life at its earliest stages, with newer technologies, like SCNT and CRISPR/Cas9 giving the new generation of biological "nuclear engineers" a new sense of mastery over the human genome. This century will almost certainly see this new technology applied to war time. The same goes for the various branches of cybernetics. All of this further destabilizes world historical movments toward peace and mutual accommodation and further increases the push toward centralization and supersidiarity, further hemming in individual and community life.
Thus, even Marx and Engels recognized that human communism could not be entered into in the normal course of historical events. It was their delusion that it could result from a period of centralization aiming toward what they considered to be economic justice, a justice based on labor and equality rather than on natural market forces. The control of natural market tendencies had to be dominated, in their vision, by the "dictatorship of the proletariat", which, of course, meant, in practice, dictatorship by ruling ideological elites.
Their vision was shared by the German Nazi Party (or, in full, National Socialist German Workers' Party [German: Nationalsozialistische Deutsche Arbeiterpartei, or NSDAP]) and the Russian Bolshevic Party, with the former playing itself out in national industrial programs, empire, concentration camps and walled-off ghettos, war and the Holocaust (a mass genocide motivated by racial hatred and bigotry), and the latter playing itself out in national industrial and agricultural programs, empire, the gulag and the Holodomor (a mass genocide motivated by the need to control the agricultural economy). Thanks, in part, to their inspiration, the 20th century became a century of mass murder on an unprecedented scale. The genocide of the Nazi and Soviet empires was followed by the mass murders in the Chinese Communist "Cultural Revolution" and the Killing Fields of Cambodia, blooded by the Khmer Rouge, the Rwandan genocide (Hutus against Tutsis) and the less ambitious mass killings of Idi Amin and Saddam Hussein. Other mass killings were perpetrated by the Japanese in the years leading up to World War II and the Ottoman Empire in the years leading up to World War I. Further details on 20th century genocides can be found at genocides in history.
More recent mass killing occurred in otherwise civilized societies when they decided to limit the growth of their populations through abortion, enforced contraception and sterilizations. Estimates here vary, but there is no question the numbers are huge. The Guttmacher Institute cites over 50 million abortions world wide between 2010 and 2014. All of these policies are directed by secular governments focused on social and economic "improvement" inspired by "scientific" socialist schemes. And through a variety of "charitable subsidies", the developed world has imposed similar programs on their less developed "partners."
All of these anti-life policies of "progressive" governments amount to what Pope St. John Paul II referred to as a "culture of death." (See, for example, Evangelium vitae, paragraph 12.) Nevertheless, the world's population is expected to continue to grow, perhaps reaching a peak of 10 or 11 billion in the 21st century. Knowing this, did progressive governments decide to sow seeds of instability in various regions of the world? Whether resulting from deliberate planning, unprecedented levels of military, diplomatic and economic/fiscal incompetence, or through inevitable historical currents, nearly every major region of the world is experiencing increasing instability and vulnerability.
These trends have moved "progressive" governments to increasingly desperate efforts. The growing differences between Godly communism (i.e., the communal life described in Acts 4) and progressive and radical secular movements aimed at the kind of economic and social "justice" envisioned by 19th century change agents could not show up in greater relief in their vision of the dignity of the human person, the family and the community. Acts 4 is about voluntarily entering a life of communal charity. Modern and post-modern state socialism, however, is rule by elites from the top down - supersidiarity - and all the social and economic instability that entails.