In 1977 a group of religious socialists gathered at the DSOC convention in Chicago to organize a Religion and Socialism group and its publication, Religious Socialism. Cort ran the magazine for eleven years, handed it over to Jack Spooner and Curt Sanders for ten years, picked it up again in 1998, and in 2000 passed it to Andrew Hammer, Norm Faramelli, and Maxine Phillips. To read the magazine in its early years was to get very familiar with the Frankfurt Declaration, the 1951 platform statement of the Socialist International, since Cort quoted it constantly. The Frankfurt Declaration was social democratic and revisionist, equating democratic socialism with believing in universal rights of freedom and economic well-being, not a particular ownership scheme. He treated it with a decided reverence, prizing one Frankfurt statement above all others: “While the guiding principle of capitalism is private profit, the guiding principle of Socialism is the satisfaction of human needs.” That was an echo of Quadragesimo anno, to his delight. Cort could not have become a democratic socialist if its official international organization had retained Marxian language condemning private profit, even if, like the Catholic Church, the Socialist International also claimed that the satisfaction of essential human needs must be lifted above it.
It puzzled him that very few of his religious socialist comrades held a similarly reverent feeling about the Frankfurt Declaration. Cort treasured the revisionist outcome in social democracy before he studied the history behind it. Christian Socialism barely mentioned the blowout between Eduard Bernstein and Karl Kautsky within German Social Democracy that produced a revisionist tradition, but Cort realized he had to learn about it to understand some of his theologian subjects and himself. Much of the relevant history was highly theoretical and tangled. Harrington detailed a fair amount of it in his books, but he insisted that Marx was a radical democrat remarkably like Harrington, and he obscured how much he owed to British revisionist socialist Anthony Crosland. Harrington’s leadership responsibilities in DSOC and Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) sometimes compelled him to fudge his position. He gave the appearance of claiming that capitalist markets should operate within socialist plans, but in fact his planning proposals were Social Democratic strategies operating within capitalist markets: solidarity-wage policies, co-determination, and worker investment funds.
In 1989 the International replaced Frankfurt with the Stockholm Declaration. It carried on for fifty-five paragraphs about economic rights and democratic-socialist values before it said anything about models of ownership. Then it advocated worker and public ownership “within the framework of a mixed economy.” Harrington was one of its coauthors, just before he died of cancer. Cort jubilantly embraced the Stockholm Declaration, exulting that it didn’t even mention Marxism. It featured trademark Harrington arguments—state ownership by itself does not guarantee economic efficiency or social justice, equality is the condition of the development of individual personality, and equality and personal freedom are indivisible.
In Cort’s last issue of Religious Socialism (Summer 2000), he bowed out with what he called “a public service,” reprinting the entire text of the Stockholm Declaration under the banner title “This Is Socialism,” which he juxtaposed to a passage from The Communist Manifesto under the title, “This Is Not Socialism—This Is Communism.” The latter passage was the Marx-Engels exhortation about overthrowing the capitalist class, centralizing all instruments of production in the hands of the state, and abolishing private property. Cort said he grieved that the latter type of thought continued to infiltrate DSA, perhaps “by a kind of secret seduction.” Elsewhere he celebrated that the Stockholm Declaration said nothing about abortion. Cort had a history of halting DSOC and DSA conventions on this subject, demanding to know on what basis they claimed expertise in moral theology. He knew he would lose the vote overwhelmingly, which didn’t stop him from making a ruckus.
Sister Mary Emil Penet, IHM, a social-ethics professor at Weston School of Theology in Cambridge, Massachusetts, told Cort after reading his article on “Why I Became a Socialist” that he should write a book on the history of Christian socialism. She jump-started the project by securing a position and library privileges for him at Weston. Cort dove into the work in 1977 and it became a wonderful obsession. He had written a lot but had never been a scholar. His book would not be as theoretically oriented as the works of major figures he wrote about. He was a journalist, he said, who wrote journalese. Yet Cort was deeply offended when Orbis Books hung a truth-in-advertising subtitle on his book, “An Informal History.” He smoldered for years at the subtitle, feeling slighted by it. Writing journalese, he would say, was no reason to insult him. Cort believed his biggest error in the book was his statement that Christian Social Democrats of Sweden had one thousand members, when in fact it had ten thousand members.
Actually, there were larger problems. A big one came on the first page, where Cort framed and defined socialism. Rightly he said that socialism and Marxism are widely various. Cort explained that the Marxist spectrum ranged from Lenin at the dictatorial end to Harrington and Rosa Luxemburg at the democratic end. Nearly everything about this frame was wrong. It erased the enormously significant phenomenon of ultra-left Marxism, erased the equally weighty tradition of rightwing Marxism, and misrepresented Luxemburg.
Cort got Luxemburg wrong because he fixed too simply on democracy, and her warm words about it confused him. He graded varieties of Marxism entirely by the democracy factor. There were two main reasons for this fixation: people lumped democratic socialists with Communists, and Latin American liberation theologians recycled Marxian slogans about the sham of liberal democracy. Both things galled and motivated Cort. Luxemburg’s glowing commendation of something called democracy sounded like Harrington to Cort. She was a true believer in the full-bore utopian version of the Marxian dictatorship of the proletariat. But Marxian dictatorship, she said, had to be the work of the entire proletarian class. It was not something owned by a revolutionary elite. It had to flow out of the active participation and direct influence of the masses; otherwise it was another form of tyranny. Cort caught the utopian idealism in Luxemburg, but wrongly thought it made her an anti-Leninist.
Problems of this sort recur in Cort’s rendering of socialist theologians, registering what he knew, what he favored, and what he half understood. For example, his entire discussion of Karl Barth’s performance at the Tambach Conference of 1919 conflated the first and second editions of Barth’s Epistle to the Romans, misunderstanding that these were two very different books and the one that caused a sensation was the second one of 1921. Moreover, Barth had serious dialectical-theological reasons for distinguishing between Christian socialism and religious socialism, emphatically rejecting religious socialism, and saying he was a Christian and a socialist but not a Christian socialist. Cort didn’t even try to tease out the argument. He tagged Barth as a victim of Godwin’s disease, “destitute of common sense,” who was somehow a great theologian. Cort was too quick to brand as confused any theologian who confused him.
But I have passed many copies of Christian Socialism on to students for thirty years because it took a magnificent swipe at a sprawling story that no one else even tried to cover. Cort delivered the goods about how Christian socialism developed in England, Germany, and the United States. The book was crammed with the learning of his later life, radiating his deep moral integrity. It offered memorable, succinct, often funny, always perceptive characterizations of the major players from Moses to Gustavo Gutiérrez. It worked because Cort never strayed from writing the book he wanted to read. He was far more interested in people and anecdotes than in theories, and he wrote about socialist theologians and Christian socialist activists with a keen interest in how they heard the Gospel, what drove them, why they remained Christian, how much orthodoxy they retained, and how they related their faith to socialist politics.
Cort prized common sense. His favorite Christian socialists were long on common sense as he construed it. The figures who disappointed him usually took flight from it, whether out of excessive idealism, a utopian impulse, an annoying woolly-mindedness, a tendency to over-intellectualize, or an alienated numbness. Others disappointed him by interpreting Christian doctrines too loosely; it puzzled him that they had to contrive some new meaning out of the creeds. Cort was always lucid, cogent, reasoned, and opinionated. Everything he wrote had to pass the newspaper test of clarity and transparency. He told readers straight-out what he got from reading theologians, and his best sections vividly conveyed real-world contexts resembling struggles he had lived through.
Christian Socialism, long in coming, came out just before the Berlin Wall came down and the Soviet Union imploded. I asked Cort if he anticipated a second edition that registered how the Soviet Communist episode turned out. Perhaps the death of Soviet Communism would occasion a second chance for democratic socialism? Cort said he would welcome the opportunity to add a chapter if asked, but would not press for it, since the book stood well enough on its own. His feelings about the Communist disaster were sprinkled through the book; it was obvious what he would say if he added a chapter. Today there is a great global revulsion against forty years of letting the big banks and corporations do whatever they want. The second chance that we hoped for in 1990 has come. The slogan that defined two generations of neoliberal capitalism—“There Is No Alternative”—no longer works to intimidate young people. There had damned well better be an alternative to severe inequality and the destruction of the planet.
Democratic socialism has made a comeback as a name for the belief in economic rights and the desire for an alternative to neoliberalism and eco-catastrophe. Some of this rebellion is occurring within the Democratic Party and much of it is operating outside the Democratic Party. Cort would be unsettled by the fact that a resurgent DSA has vowed to break free of the Democratic Party. On both sides of this argument, however, there is a case to be made for the enduring relevance of religious socialism. Throughout the history of democratic socialism, Christian socialists have refused to say that capitalism is the cause of all social harm, and they have refused to subordinate their ethical convictions to an ideology. Christian socialists have Christian reasons to be socialist. Christian Socialism tells this story with genial grace, making a persuasive case for why it mattered then and now.
This essay has been adapted from the introduction to a new edition of Christian Socialism: An Informal History.
Christian Socialism: An Informal History
John C. Cort
Orbis Books, 440 pp., $45