From each according to their ability, to each according to their needs!1
You begrudge your fellow human beings what you yourself enjoy; taking wicked counsel in your soul, you consider not how you might distribute to others according to their needs, but rather how, after having received so many good things, you might rob others their benefit.2
St. Basil the Great
The famous Marx quote above positions his social and economic platform. He was critiquing the Gotha Program, which was the political and social program created by German socialists, who wanted Marx’s opinion (although they never took heed of his words). The program emphasized one’s ability to work and the importance of work itself. Marx opens his critique with “Labor is not the source of all wealth. Nature is just as much the source of use values…” In other words, labor should not be emphasized over the Earth and her resources; rather, labor and the Earth should balance one other. We should only use what is necessary and not exploit the land.
Later in the Critique, Marx writes of the different phases of communism. In the higher phase of communism, he writes, “from each according to their ability, to each according to their needs.” This quote summarizes the preceding paragraph, showing that not every person has the same physical or mental ability. Every one has different gifts and talents, so we cannot be the same kind of worker. Additionally, at some point in our lives we will be unable to work. For example, children and the elderly in our society should not work, but they still have needs. As well, people who have the ability to work some days/weeks cannot function because of depression, injuries, or grieving the loss of a loved one. For this reason, Marx makes it clear that it’s not labor that gives one value: a person has familial ties, talents and abilities that lack ‘market value’, but we are breathing, living creatures (it that not enough?).
I write of Marx’s position first because he has been more influential (and the most misunderstood) in social and economic movements than Basil. Although, I believe Basil represents a far more radical camp than Marx.
Basil was the Bishop of Caesarea living in the fourth century. He was raised in a very wealthy family and later abandoned the upper class to become a monk. He even wrote a Monastic Rule. After many years as a monk, he was called to serve the Caesarea community as their bishop. Basil used the tools that he learned as a monk and applied them to his ministry creating a community center/church/doctor’s office. This center was called Basiliada.3 In this way, Basil brought the most important aspects of monasticism to urban life. The top-of-the-post Basil quote is from his sermon titled, “I Will Tear Down My Barns.” Some pretext: Caesarea had been hit with a drought, killing off crops and animals, and the wealthy were hoarding resources while others were dying in the street. Basil has already taken initiative, emptying the barns that he inherited and distributed food to those in need. In his sermon, which there were several on this topic, he condemns those hoarding their God-given resources. And here’s why this is radical: BASIL NEVER DEMANDS LABOR! I believe this to be at the heart of Christian anarchism. Unlike Marx who included both statements, “from each according to their ability and/or need.” Basil writes elsewhere,
“If we all took only what was necessary to satisfy our own needs, giving the rest to those who lack, no one would be rich, no one would be poor, and no one would be in need.”
Basil transcends class and labor, theologically constructing utopia. And as I am reminded over and over again, that if we are not thinking, creating, and building utopia, what are we doing? What do we have to hope for?4 Basil states in another sermon, “To The Rich,” that if you are waiting to give to the needy after you have died, why would you not do it while you’re were alive? Why squander and live in luxury while others die in the streets?! And Basil, like a good anarchist, implies that giving of one’s self is voluntary, never forced.
St. Basil’s subversive theology is rarely, if ever, mentioned in churches across America. Our theology is shaped by political ideologies and discourse in terms of voting, legislation, and representative democracy. Imagine what it would look like if Basiliadas popped up across the world with free services for all. Imagine if one didn’t have to worry about the necessities of everyday existence: a place to stay, food to eat, merry friendships, and free utilities; instead, one could focus on caring for the community. We already have an abundance of resources (!): more than enough houses for those without, more than enough food to feed the world, more than enough medicine to cure the sick, and certainly more than enough love to go around. It’s time to leave behind worn-out political discourse and try on St. Basil.
1. Located in the ‘Critique of the Gotha Program’ written in 1875, but it’s conceptually based on Étienne-Gabriel Morelly’s 1755 text Code of Nature.
2. This selection is from Basil’s sermon “I Will Tear Down My Barns” found in On Social Justice (p. 62), translated by C. Paul Schroeder.
3. Sadly, not much is written about it. I first read about it in On Social Justice (pps. 33-38).
4. When others describe heaven, does it not sound like a utopia?