What German Theology Teaches America: The Case of Dorothee Soelle

In their loathing for our own society, some Christians may be ready for a preemptive surrender to Marx.

Large segments of the staff and top leadership of the American Protestant and Catholic communities have moved steadily and rapidly over the last fifteen years from liberalism to socialism. Many are, in the name of “radical analysis,” in explicit rebellion against Reinhold Niebuhr’s “biblical realism.” In foreign policy, many view the Soviet Union and the United States as almost equally immoral, but expend most of their moral passion against the United States. Intellectual leadership within this movement has been provided by a very few socialist theoreticians. One of the most eminent — both in feminist and in wider circles — is the West German theologian Dorothee Soelle, a contributing editor to Christianity and Crisis, a member of the faculty at Union Theological Seminary in New York, and a frequent lecturer throughout the United States.

In the Earl Lectures given at the Pacific School of Religion in 1977, Professor Soelle offers autobiographical reasons for her conversion to socialism. This was her second conversion. While facing the hunger, cold, devastation, and guilt of the first post-war winters of 1945 and 1946, as a young German girl of fifteen, Dr. Soelle recalls feeling indescribably estranged from her own culture and her own parents. Her mother and father were liberal, middle class, “and outspokenly anti-Nazi.” Yet their refined liberal culture, Soelle writes, did not suffice to halt Hitler. Their “liberal bourgeois culture had ended in Auschwitz . . . There was only one alternative to nihilism, at least for me, that was to become a Christian.”

Surely, though, Christians had also collaborated in the horrors of Nazism and Auschwitz. Moreover, Hitler had been even more rabidly anti-liberal and anti-bourgeois than Dr. Soelle; he despised liberalism, individualism, and bourgeois morals. In opposition to them, Hitler created a new collectivism, which he properly called socialism: National Socialism. It had much in common with Stalinism. It was collectivist, anti-liberal, anti-bourgeois, and totalitarian. To say that her parents’ “liberal bourgeois culture had ended in Auschwitz” is to suggest either that her parents were not outspokenly anti-Nazi, after all, or that Hitler was himself-liberal and bourgeois. Perhaps Dr. Soelle means to say that “liberal bourgeois culture” failed to prevent the rise of Hitler and the horror of Auschwitz. That is a different matter.

By her own account, Dr. Soelle turned to Christianity because “it helped me more than anything else to continue to live with the burden of being German in the century of the holocaust.” She did not like the institutional church at all; she mistrusted it deeply. She identified with Pascal, Kierkegaard and “the early Luther — all of them being homeless in the established churches.” She was alienated and sought a cure for her alienation. “I am,” she writes a little later, “part of the alienation which I introject on others, too.”

From her unwilling membership in Nazi Germany, Dr. Soelle has experienced a deep guilt which she interprets as both collective and political, deeper than any merely personal, sexual, or private transgression. She now “introjects on others, too,” this same political guilt. The guilt of Nazi Germany is not Germany’s alone, not hers alone, she argues, but that of capitalism, the West, and especially the United States (which liberated Dr. Soelle from Nazism). She escapes from her own special guilt by including others in it. She thinks this guilt is deeper than the quilt of the Nazis, underlies the latter, explains the latter.

Speaking to Americans, she says it is “our whole way of life which is wrong . . . we are allowing capital to be our master, we are permitting the system to exploit third world countries.” We are “actually living in a culture of injustice.” Again, “. . . that I am a German and middle class, has to be acknowledged. I am part of a sinful social structure; sin rules over me and I am admitting it silently.” Not to leave any doubt about this, what is sinful in our culture is neither its democracy nor its moral-cultural pluralism, but its economic system. “Affirming capitalism, people decide for a specific form of alienation of themselves and exploitation of their brothers and sisters.”

Dr. Soelle tells us that she first became a socialist rather late, in 1972, on a visit to Hanoi. For her, socialism began as an experience of conversion, which is why she proceeds first in an autobiographical mode. In her youth, she became a Christian. In her forties, she experienced a second conversion, in which (she writes) “I felt that my faith was deepened by my growing into socialism.” Vietnam was for her the great leveler. It revealed the United States as the new Nazism.

My second conversion from liberal to socialist happened in the contest of another political event, similar to Auschwitz. This was the Vietnam war. It did two things to me. First of all it unmasked capitalism more than any other historical fact during my life time. Auschwitz had not ended with Auschwitz, it continued. I learned to see with the eyes of a Vietnamese peasant woman [sic], and I learned to understand how technology, production and economy were part of the industrial-military machine which dominates this country. German money, so I learned, was involved to pay for the genocide.

The exact moment of her conversion came in a metal-working factory in “Haiphong not far from Hanoi.” She heard a machinist playing a bamboo flute while a girl at a lathe sang and an unskilled worker picked up his guitar. There “tears came to my eyes,” as she thought about the lathe operators in Dusseldorf and the unskilled workers at Siemens, “who will never learn to sing/in this life of ours.”

At this very point in her first lecture, one’s sense of truth is pricked. Is it true that German laborers never sing? I have heard them sing in countless biergartens, band pavilions, and on cruise ships on the Rhine. I have seen movies of the German soldiers singing songs “two thousand years old” as they marched to war. Is it true, further, that “the cultural revolution” Dr. Soelle experienced in 1972 in Hanoi, and still described glowingly in 1977, has the highly humanistic quality she attributes to it, tears in her eyes? When did she learn of the prison camps in Hanoi, the “boat people,” the “re-education” camps throughout Vietnam, the “socialist revolution” in Cambodia, and of the North Vietnamese imperial dream? It is not likely that Dr. Soelle has truly analyzed the humane culture of Hanoi before commending it to us as a model which the United States and West Germany ought to imitate. Is it democratic? Is it pluralistic? Is its economy more humane than that of National Socialism? Has. Nationalism been of no import in Hanoi’s Socialism?

Nonetheless, Professor Soelle was converted to socialism in Hanoi in 1972. She has been learning from Marx ever since, being taught by him in “an unaccomplished process of relearning the Christian faith and rediscovering its substance.” Her earliest misgivings about institutional, individualized Christianity have “vanished the more I learn about the history of our own time with the help of the Hegelian-Marxist tradition.” Speaking of the West, she writes that “Our laws are made to protect private property, they are not made to protect human beings.” Surely, she has not learned this from a study of “our laws,” which do in fact protect institutions of human rights, including rights of speech and association as well as of life, and including the rights of labor unions, the elderly, the poor, and the outcast. Relying on Hegel and Marx as her guides to reality, she has been misled about plain and easily observed facts.

From Hegel’s famous discussion of the slave and the slaveholder, Dr. Soelle has learned that, “Historically speaking, the bondsman represents the progressive forces of history.” She does not distinguish, as Abraham Lincoln often did, slave labor from free labor.’ Lincoln was willing to lead his nation into history’s bloodiest war until that time in order to defend that distinction, a distinction Lincoln thought to be essential to the American proposition that all men are created equal. Dr. Soelle rides over it as if it makes no difference. Indeed, she learned from Marx that it does not. For her, free labor is the same as slave labor. What Marx taught her, she writes, is that “the worker in privately owned and profit-oriented economies” is alienated from himself “and the human identity of the worker is destroyed.” Abraham Lincoln, on the contrary, speaking of his own experience, held that free labor upheld the most sacred dignity of humans, liberated them, and formed the mainstay of free societies, for whose blessings generations would thank God. Dr. Soelle, however, relies upon “the best available analysis which is based on an unconditional respect for human dignity in the process of work, that is, the analysis of Karl Marx.” She does not consider Abraham Lincoln.

Dr. Soelle learns from Marx that the laborer in a privately owned, profit oriented company is alienated from nature, from himself or herself, from the human species, and from any possible human relationships between a person and other persons. If true, these four alienations would render life in democratic capitalist societies sheer hell. That is what Marx teaches her to find in the West. She finds powerlessness and writes, “The mood of powerlessness is culturally the deepest form of capitalistic devastation.” There is “desolation” everywhere.

Now an attentive reader may already have asked, Compared to what? Is West Germany in 1984 more subject to “devastation” than in, say, 1940? Would the great Protestant theologian, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who gave his life in the plot to assassinate Adolph Hitler, have judged so? Perhaps West Germany should be compared to East Germany, Poland, Lithuania, Ukraine, or Russia itself in 1984.

Dr. Soelle concedes that most Christians in the West prefer capitalist societies to available socialist alternatives. What she has in mind, of course, is a socialist society which does not yet exist: “The pointing out of an economic failure of a given socialist society can never meet the basic concern of socialism whose primary goal is not the increase of gross national production figures but the increase of quality of life for the masses.” It is not easy to see how this attenuated defense of socialism empirically succeeds. Does Dr. Soelle mean that the quality of fife is higher in existing socialist societies than in, say, West Germany, the homeland she so obviously loathes? To show this would be an arduous task. The movement of immigrants seems, despite the Wall, with its dogs, glaring lights, tripwires, and heavily armed guards, to be in one direction only.

Dr. Soelle argues that Hegel was a mere idealist, but Marx saw things lucidly and “put Hegel on his feet,” by grasping the fact that “class struggle” will alone overcome alienation. Where has this happened? Nowhere, not yet. But it is, for Dr. Soelle, obviously and logically necessary. This is so because she accepts the Marxist analysis of alienation.

In each of his four senses of alienation, however, Marx has been proven to be wrong. “The deepest experience in work has to do with the encounter with nature,” Dr. Soelle expounds Marx, “but the industrial worker is excluded from this give and take.” Yet, surely, neither Dr. Soelle in her study nor Marx in the British Museum, much encounters “nature.” It would seem that Dr. Soelle has in mind an agrarian ideal, forgetting that Marx does mention the stultifying routines of farm labor, even though the latter are quite close to nature. Dr. Soelle seems to think that, even today, an industrial worker (a declining class in developed countries) is “reduced to self-reproduction as a mere individual in physical existence,” working merely “in order to eat, instead of to mould and transform nature.” This supposes that the industrial worker of today is paid subsistence wages, has no home and garden of his own, and no sons and daughters studying in universities or hiking through the Alps.

The second alienation, is the turning of industrial workers into “things.” “Capitalism reificates living people, called the labor force, into dead exchangeable objects,” she explains Marx. The industrial worker does not “decide what to produce,” must adjust to the organization and timing of work decided by others, loses all sense of time, and does not market or sell what he or she produces. But does not every collective economic activity have such characteristics, and not only in industry? What control has the farmer over weather, blight, and the fluctuations of commodity markets?

Dr. Soelle cannot really mean that the “collectivization of agriculture” is a cure either for “alienation” or for self-directed production and distribution. She does have a scruple: “Is alienation independent from the economic system or inevitable in industrially advanced societies?” She replies: “There is no easy answer to this question and the survival of alienation in countries which are transforming from capitalism to socialism does not allow us more than glimpses of hope.”

But this is to miss the point. Any economic system which in the name of common action asks human beings to cooperate, each accomplishing a portion of the total task, is in a sense (but a remote sense) “alienating.” One must depend on others, many of them unseen and unknown and, in the nature of human life, in that sense alien. There are others whose work must be trusted, without whom one could not function. This is true of the writers of books, for example, who meet few of their readers face-to-face and depend on printers, papermakers, ink suppliers, binders, builders of word processors, artists and designers, marketers, booksellers, truckers, post office employees, policemen, legislators, purchasers, and intelligent readers. Writing is a most solitary activity, causing various cramps, eye troubles, seat troubles, and numerous other maladies, such that a certain neurosis is commonly thought indispensable to its daily grinding necessities. It is, withal, such a lovely task — but so is that of the bookmaker, distributer, and all who share in a book’s eventual appearance. Human life is such that each of us depends on many others. We do not demand that all our collaborators share our religious faith, our inner dispositions, our political views, or our affections; in such ways they are happily “alien” to us, and work beyond our control. Nonetheless, their assistance spares us many costly exertions, such that to them, all unseen, we are properly grateful.

Indeed, it might be observed, theologically, that every historical religious community shares similar necessities. Not every participant is a rabbi or priest, prophet or learned commentator, worker in a hospital or orphanage, canon lawyer or fundraiser, builder of houses of worship or organist, cantor or attender solely at family weddings and burials. As Dr. Soelle confesses to “alienation” from her own religious institutions, so do all Jews and Christians chafe to some degree at the inexorable “otherness” of a large and well-organized international community. The “division of labor” is an invention not solely of an economy and, even within an economy, not solely of industrial plants.

The third form of Marxist “alienation” expounded by Dr. Soelle is alienation from the human species. She holds, with Marx, that industrial labor “depoliticizes” the worker and also “deculturizes” him or her, as when young workers completing their education feel mutilated by the production process. There is some truth in this. A democratic capitalist political economy consists not solely of an economic system but also of a political system and a moral-cultural system. Adam Smith, in a famous passage, was concerned even in 1776 about the “brutalizing” effects of factory work on the spirits of the workers. Much has since been done to soften this effect, not least being the highly favorable wages, hourly limits, vacation days, and retirement plans of industrial employment. For such benefits, labor unions have properly and well struggled down successive generations. One need not be a socialist to support such struggles.

Yet, were the dispossessed peasants of Europe, who fled in the most massive migrations of human history to the industrial centers of Western Europe and North America during the nineteenth century, voluntarily seeking a lesser life, willingly absenting themselves from the human species? They sought a better, freer, more noble, more participatory life. And with others they have built the freest and most activist societies in history. Even Adam Smith, after all, called his manifesto an inquiry into the nature and the causes of the wealth — not of individuals — but of nations, all nations. He was the first to envisage an interdependent human species, linked by law and concord, in open and free commerce and trade. The notion that capitalism separates the human species is absurd. It has produced a world more interdependent than any ever known before.

Further, precisely those parts of the so-called “third world” most in contact with capitalist activities are the most advanced, while those most remote and most untouched are the most backward and isolated. For Marx, the interdependence of the “socialist international” depended upon the prior interdependence wrought by capitalism. Dr. Soelle is today in a position to see which international net work is the more politically free, active, and democratic; and , which more freely and openly allows songs to be sung, lectures to be attended, books to be published, dancers to dance, and cultural pluralism to flourish.

Fourthly, Dr. Soelle follows Marx in hypothesizing that “the cash nexus” of an economy of exchange would eliminate all the more noble human relations. Here Marx was simply mistaken. An “exchange economy” does not stifle charity liberty, generosity, compassion, an instinct for solitude and contemplation, or even a very good income derived from non-profit activities. It has turned out, further, that socialist societies also depend upon exchange relations, only such as are less free. How could it be otherwise in a human world? Robinson Crusoe exists, for the most part, in fantasy. Most human beings everywhere exchange goods and services with others, either freely or by command.

In a revealing passage, Dr. Soelle recounts picking up on the beach “the most beautiful shell I have ever seen.” Child of a capitalist society which she loathes, she, nevertheless, is “happy with it.” This, she says, is “what Marx would call the use of it.” When she meets her friends, they, too, enjoy its beauty, but then urge her to sell it, paint it for sale, or otherwise find some exchange use for it. Everything for sale! “Universal saleability”! “They respond not as lovers of beauty but as people who have internalized the meaning of exchange value.” Sadly, human beings often do make category mistakes, and the habit of practicality has always been raised by philosophers of Contemplation, beauty, and art. But does not Dr. Soelle insist that Marxism is a system of relentless praxis, not of contemplation? Her argument about the sea shell is far from being Marxist. Not by accident has liberal, bourgeois culture become the historical custodian, in its pluralism, of the absolute claims of being, faith and beauty to which she, despite herself, must appeal.

The key to her Marxist assault upon capitalism, of course, lies in a profound error regarding the “labor theory of value.” According to this theory, which Marx bowdlerized from David Ricardo, the mental and physical exertion of labor adds all new exchange value to goods produced. Thus, all profit belongs by right to the workers. Any “profit” taken by the owner of the means of production is stolen. Profit, like property, is theft. But this is absurd. Exchange value is added by intellect, design, invention, wit and entrepreneurial talent. Were this not so, workers toiling at inefficient technologies on products of poor design would, by their sheer labor, produce goods as useful (whether in themselves or for exchange) as those gifted with more intelligently designed instruments or materials. Shoddy goods from Russia would be as desirable (whether in themselves or for exchange) as the beautifully engineered goods of Dusseldorf and Siemens.

Marx overlooked a critical point. The human mind is both the decisive economic resource and the decisive economic factor. Of two laborers, one using wit and another merely physical exertion, the product of the first is likely to have higher use (both in itself and in exchange). For it is human wit that most unites human workmanship with the grain and texture of nature. Marx called the system he and Dr. Soelle loathes “capitalism,” in order to divide owners from workers, as if one could succeed without the other. But he unwittingly struck close to the truth, for caput (head) is the answer to Adam Smith’s inquiry into the causes of the wealth of nations. The Japanese, recognizing this decisive factor, have become the acknowledged paragons of international competition. They have not done so by “the labor theory of value” but by unprecedented boldness of wit in free markets.

Dr. Soelle may have a consuming passion to involve the entire West in her own sense of guilt for continuing “to live with the burden of being a German in the age of the holocaust.” She may hold that the developed nations must necessarily exploit the third world, even apart from the facts of the matter, because on her premises capitalism is logically based upon exploitation and can do no other. But she falls into two further confusions.

First, she seems to hold that “our way of producing and organizing our production allows capitalism to dominate us, to subordinate all other interests and human needs to the need of increasing profit.” Why, then, do profits not constantly increase? How does such a vast array of non-profit activity survive in Western education, care for the sick and the old, research, arts, and the rest? Why does religion continue to thrive, if not in West Germany, in the United States? But her assertions are not intended as empirical assertions, merely as logical postulates. “The hope to convert capitalists into more humane beings is naively idealistic. The trouble is the domination of dead capital over living men and women; the perversity that living people are treated as dead cogs in the machine, whereas dead things are theoretically and practically worshipped as the life-giving God of this society. Theoretically in the ruling doctrines of bourgeois economy up to Neo-Keynesianism, practicality [sic] in the efficient subjugation of every human wish or need under the needs of capital increases.” Can anyone really believe that Dorothee Soelle, just because she is a socialist, is a “more humane human being,” than any labor union leader, church official, business leader, or social worker who prefers democratic capitalism? Salvation by partisan politics is cheap grace.

Further, on the record, a disproportionate number of leaders in every field in democratic capitalist societies has been raised up from among poor families, by a system of open upward (and downward) mobility beyond her reckoning. Class in democratic capitalist societies is far more fluid than Marx or Dr. Soelle has dreamed.

Finally, Dr. Soelle confuses “dead capital,” “capital increases” and “profit” with material things, with lucre, with mammon. In the real world, however, the creation of new capital is another word for development; an economy lacking it is stagnating or declining. For profit is a measure of the creation of new wealth, which never before existed. And the creation of new capital is not purposeless. Its purpose is social: to raise “the quality of life” for an entire nation, and for all nations, until there are achieved the Four Freedoms for which Franklin Delano Roosevelt, when Dr. Soelle was fourteen, bade all Americans to labor: Freedom from want, from ignorance, from disease, and from tyranny.

Misers of old, trapped in their pre-capitalist zero-sum game, may have sat in their counting houses counting up their money. It remained for the doers and the thinkers who conceived of a “new order of the ages” to divine that in political economy spirit is prior to matter. A genuinely capitalist culture, they saw, sacrifices the present for the future. The point of wealth is not to hoard it or to consume it, but to save and to invest it, in order to turn it to creative use in bringing the poverty nearly universal in their time to a merciful end: to raise up the poor of all nations into free and mutually respectful relations, ruled by concord and law, weaving of their disparate endowments a tapestry of global interdependence. In the “new order” they imaged two hundred years ago, the mighty would be brought low, the poor and huddled masses taught to breathe free, and a new age of advancing liberty and justice begun. More of their dream was accomplished than they could have hoped in 1776. There remains a great deal to do.

In the dread hand of socialism, meanwhile, one may be forgiven for seeing even less of the “glimpses of hope” that Dr. Soelle affects to see in “the best available analysis . . . the analysis of Karl Marx.” Such words today evoke sardonic grins in the lands ruled by Karl Marx. That Dr. Soelle is trying to teach them to the Christians of the West is an index of self-degradation. Some Christians may, like her in their loathing of our own society, be ready for a preemptive surrender to Marx. They should at least take note of the paltriness of the vision and the argument in which she would instruct them.

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Michael Novak (1933-2017) founded Crisis Magazine with Ralph McInerny in 1982. He held the George Frederick Jewett Chair in Religion and Public Policy at the American Enterprise Institute and was a trustee and visiting professor at Ave Maria University. In 1994, he received the Templeton Prize for Progress in Religion. He was also an emissary to the United Nations Human Rights Commission and to the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe.

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