01 May 2018

On Orthodox Christian anti-capitalism

Gennady Zyuganov of the KPRF, with HH Patriarch Kirill of Moscow and All Rus’

Firstly, Happy International Workers’ Day, gentle readers! Also, a blessed feast of the holy and right-believing Saint Queen Tamara of Georgia! (If it sounds incongruous to you to celebrate both a sainted monarch of Georgia’s feudal golden age and the working men and women of the world on the same day – well, in that case, a hearty welcome to my blog, and do feel free to read my past posts.)

As it so happens, this is a perfect occasion to talk about the overlap of Orthodox Christianity, culture and œconomics; particularly in light of the recent Bershidsky piece in Bloomberg which, citing a World Bank study which is in turn based on the World Values Survey, tries to argue a causal relationship between Orthodox Christian nations’ cultural values and their disinclination to capitalism.

Let me get this out of the way first. I don’t take issue with the premises of Bershidsky’s piece or those of the study it cites. That people in Orthodox countries are less happy than their Western counterparts, less trusting, less favourable to new ideas, less likely to engage in entrepreneurship, more risk-averse and more supportive of public-sector intervention in the œconomy – in short, that Eastern European people in nations which were culturally shaped by Orthodox Christianity don’t make good capitalists – is something I generally tend to agree with. Also, I will be among the first to agree with and applaud the argument that Orthodox Christianity as a whole is not particularly amenable to capitalist logic.

But that’s pretty much where my agreement ends. I can’t help but see the explanation Bershidsky and his World Bank œconomists give as fundamentally lazy: namely, that Eastern European countries do not view capitalism favourably because the religious background of these countries’ cultures is averse to it. More proximate explanations are mentioned for form’s sake, but discounted for reasons which are never made clear. For example: the fact that these countries did not fully industrialise before adopting communism; or the fact that in the wake of communism they were subject to shock-therapy neoliberal restructuring, a remedy which was in most cases far worse than the disease that it tried to cure. Ask the average working-class Russian, Romanian, Greek or Serb ‘on the street’ why they oppose capitalism, and they won’t start quoting Saint Basil at you. It would be awesome if they did, but chances are that they’ll tell you their personal experience of how privatisation and restructuring negatively impacted their lives.

Bershidsky duly name-checks Weber and Chaadaev in his piece. Me? I’m reminded more of Ha-Joon Chang’s book, Bad Samaritans, and particularly the chapters in which he talks about Confucianism and the rough transitions Confucian countries made to capitalism. In each case, when the nations in question fare poorly under capitalism or in an industrial transition, pro-capitalist œconomists and sociologists have been quick to play the Weberian ‘culture card’. Confucian-cultured Koreans and Chinese supposedly didn’t make good capitalists because they prioritised scholarship and farming over mercantile pursuits; because they didn’t value the rule of law; because they approved nepotism and family connexions over objective suitability for a specific job.

When, during the eighties and nineties, historically-Confucian countries started doing really well, many of the same sociologists began reëvaluating Confucianism. All of a sudden, Confucian culture was transformed in the Western mindset into a virtuous culture of discipline, with a strong work ethic, loyalty and social cohesion with obvious benefits to a private-sector firm. Ha-Joon Chang very rightly called shenanigans on such cultural-essentialist explanations for why some cultures fare poorly (or better) under capitalism some of the time. Even though he didn’t and wouldn’t discount culture entirely, he was nonetheless sensitive to the impact material conditions and, yes, human choice can have on cultural formation. More importantly: Dr Chang showed up the self-serving nature of these ‘just-so’ stories that the sociological water-bearers for free-market ideology tell about why the benefits of global markets fail to evenly or proportionally distribute themselves.

Nathaniel Wood at Fordham’s Public Orthodoxy blog, who rightly lays his finger on many of the same issues with Bershidsky’s cultural-essentialist ‘just-so’ story as I do, calls this – in reference to the Huntington thesis – a ‘clash of civilisations’ narrative. He then attempts to provide counterexamples to Bershidsky’s claim that Orthodox Christianity is particularly amenable to communism. There is much in Wood’s answer to Bershidsky here to admire. His insistence that religious anti-capitalism is not just a phenomenon of the Christian ‘East’, but also obtains to a significant degree in Roman Catholic theology, is insightful, profound and correct. And he also rightly describes Bershidsky’s assessment of Orthodox Christianity as a malicious caricature. Mr Wood’s critique of Bershidsky ultimately strikes me as more than a trifle reactionary, however, and it’s unfortunately clouded by certain blind spots of its own.

In answer to Bershidsky’s caricature, unfortunately Wood presents us with something of a more benign caricature of his own, concerning Russian Orthodox social thought. Wood is right about the anti-capitalist nature of early Slavophilia, but it was neither as Western nor as anti-Western as he makes it out to be. As with all caricature, it contains an important grain of truth: Slavophilia was influenced by German Romanticism (particularly Schelling), and its key proponents did engage in anti-Western polemic – ultimately spearheading a number of different ‘syncretic’ philosophical movements in the non-West which attempted to fight the ‘hegemonic discourse of Western superiority’. On the other hand, this characterisation misses a significant part of the picture. As with (for example) New Text Confucianism particularly in its Qing Dynasty incarnation, Slavophilia returns to pre-Enlightenment thinking – including that of the Early Church Fathers and the Kievan Rus’ chroniclers – to join an internal political dispute rather than to react directly against the West. Kireevsky and Khomyakov were more interested at first in rectifying a certain literary-cultural-creative sloth within Russian culture itself, than they were in polemicising against the West. This parallels the New Text-inspired internal criticism of Qing literary culture and governance made by Gong Zizhen and Wei Yuan, whose thought only later and in retrospect took on an ideological character of anti-Western resistance.

Wood’s answer also seems rather unfair to current-day Russian thought. It’s a bit simplistic to claim Putin as a ‘clash of civilisations’ ideologue when two of the three philosophers he cites most are the Russian Silver Age thinker Vladimir Solovyov (a modern Christian Platonist whose universalist and pro-Western tendencies have been well noted) and the very same Nikolai Berdyaev whom Wood cites as a bridge between Orthodox thought and modern Western thought.

More importantly, reading the publications of its hierarchs closely on their own terms, the Russian Church does not oppose human rights discourse per se; instead they object to its use as a fig-leaf for sexual libertinism, œconomic exploitation and unjust war. Is it truly in the best interest of understanding to ignore, either the Russian clerics’ good-faith attempts to do the kind of engagement Wood himself calls for, or the just grounds for suspicion of human-rights talk on their part? Indeed, is it helpful in countering the ‘clash of civilisations’ narrative to simply assume the Russian Church’s bad-faith interest in promoting ‘authoritarianism’ for its own sake?

Bringing this back around to the initial Bloomberg piece: I’m very far from casting doubt on the communitarian potentials of Orthodox Christian doctrine. Even in the United States, the initial experience of Orthodox Christianity (outliers like Philip Ludwell III notwithstanding) was as the immigrant faith of working-class Rusin coal miners, whose priests and hierarchs were also active in the struggle of their labouring flocks for just wages and humane treatment. Even transplanted into North America, Orthodox Christianity at its best has borne a strong witness to a communitarian vision that speaks up for the worker and for the poor.

At the same time, much as I might wish it to be otherwise, it takes quite a few wild leaps of the idealist imagination to derive the current set of anti-capitalist attitudes on display in Eastern Europe out of those same doctrines. Speaking of Fr Sergei Bulgakov: material conditions matter, and explanations which fail to account for those material conditions ought to be regarded with the requisite suspicion.


  1. Thank you for the illuminating parallels to Confucianism. I had not been aware of Chang’s book, but have long held that our troubles lie largely in what capitalism and communism have in common rather than in the particularities of one or the other.

  2. Hello, Izhnannyk! Welcome to the blog!

    Yes, I'm largely of your opinion there. Communism absent any thought of God, motivated only by material considerations, is monstrous only as capitalism can be. And they do have a great deal of semblance, one to the other.