In the classic 1828 edition of his dictionary, Noah Webster defined philanthropy as “the love of mankind; benevolence towards the whole human family; universal good will.” Similarly, he characterized charity as “liberality to the poor… in gratuitous services to relieve them in distress.”
Contrast that with Google Dictionary’s 2018 definition of philanthropy as “the desire to promote the welfare of others, expressed especially by the generous donation of money to good causes,” and charity as “the voluntary giving of help, typically in the form of money, to those in need.”
They’re similar definitions, but not the same. What’s missing?
Canny readers might note Noah Webster’s tribute to the ancient Greeks and the Bible in his definitions: “man-loving” (philo- anthropos) and “dear” or “costly” (carus or caritas, a Latin word with its true roots in the Bible and often translated from the uniquely Christian Greek word agape, “love of fellow man”).
Those tones of Christian love are downplayed or entirely absent in many modern definitions, which emphasize an individual’s uncoerced decision to give gobs of money for the common “weal” (welfare). It’s a subtle distinction with enormous consequences, particularly in an age where the dogma of social justice is regularly confused for beneficence.
Take Thousand Currents, a San Francisco-based international aid nonprofit formerly known as the International Development Exchange. It’s a “social change” organization aimed at moving resources and providing consultation to communities in the developing world. Thousand Currents’ role, according to its website, is “to affect [sic] systemic change, shift unequal power dynamics, influence giving to adopt egalitarian practices, balance learning between the Global South and North, and facilitate connections.” To that end, Thousand Currents has been granted millions of dollars from the Novo Foundation ($1.1 million), Tides Foundation ($652,000), Ford Foundation ($105,000), and the Consortium for Global Development ($5.2 million) since 1999.
Aiding the development of poor communities is a noble goal, to be sure. But what is the “Global South and North” that Thousand Currents hopes to “balance”?
If those sound like ivory tower terms, that’s because they are.
The concept of a Global South and North was birthed in the Cold War—a Marxist take on the largely Anglophone concept of the First World (U.S.-aligned democracies), the Second World (Soviet-aligned Communist states), and the Third World (non-aligned states that came to refer to poor countries). It’s terminology in line with the Marxist take on international relations: human history is the history of economics, where the rich states in the Global North plunder their poor neighbors in the Global South. The delineation became especially popular after the defeat of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s, when left-wing proponents pushed it as an alternative to the First/Second/Third World divide.
The paradigm has gained traction in the intervening years in left-wing philanthropy, and it isn’t difficult to see why. Blaming the troubles of developing countries on their rich counterparts feeds the narrative that the U.S. is an imperialist aggressor obligated by way of apology to spend billions of dollars in foreign aid (read: reparations) to poor nations.
But is that philanthropy? If Americans are obligated to cough up cash to compensate for perceived past injuries, can we really call that charity?
The paradox at the heart of “Marxist philanthropy” is that it demands that one aid his neighbor both out of a spirit of loving-kindness and fearful tribute. Like Marxist ideology in general, it’s motivated by revenge masquerading as justice. Where true generosity is disinterested in receiving anything in return for its largesse, content merely to have freely aided another, Marxist altruism demands “generosity” through guilt and coercion—or else.
That attitude of suspicion and revenge so permeates the socialist mind that it struggles to conceive of genuine selflessness. What those who reject socialism call “charity” is merely capitalist cozenage to the leery socialist. Take this critique of philanthropy, which Canadian socialist Susan Rosenthal calls “the capitalist art of deception”:
Confusion prevents workers from moving decisively against their enemies. . . . The capitalist class invented war as philanthropy, also known as “humanitarian intervention.” Expressing concern for those you attack and urging people to rally around that concern channel revulsion against war into activities that support war and those who profit from it. Philanthropy in the form of “international aid” hides imperial exploitation. Poor countries are typically described as under-developed rather than over-exploited.
Rosenthal quotes 19th century socialist (and co-author of the Communist Manifesto) Friedrich Engels to assert that the “capitalist class is charitable out of self-interest; it gives nothing outright, but regards its gifts as a business matter.”
While it wouldn’t be fair to accuse Thousand Currents of spreading overt socialism, much of its work bears the hallmarks of “radical philanthropy,” an approach to giving that makes many Marxist assumptions.
Beyond the usual bromidic paeans to “climate justice” and “sustainability,” Thousand Currents aims to build “alternative economies” in developing countries that “equitably distribute decision-making power among all economic players.” The nonprofit offers a Thousand Currents Academy, where attendees learn how to leave “colonized time”—in this case, Eastern Standard Time—to better contemplate questions like “how am I implicated in global inequality?”
One alumnus trained in radical philanthropy blamed the International Monetary Fund and the U.S. for high debt-to-GDP ratios in poor countries, claiming that, “as a country, we are very implicated in, and even potentially responsible for, the cycles of poverty that many of us are fighting to alleviate.”
Obviously, the solution to these issues isn’t tossing a few extra dollars toward those states—the system itself needs to change. That’s the position taken by left-wing activist and radical philanthropist Leah Hunt-Hendrix, whose organization, Solidaire Network (a project of the left-wing funder Proteus Fund), “seek[s] to contest, disrupt and transform these systems” of oppression. As Hunt-Hendrix wrote in the Huffington Post, “[t]he best philanthropy is the type that seeks to end the system that perpetually generates the need for philanthropy”:
The most pressing crises of our time are products of our political-economic system. They are deeply historical, rooted in capitalism and imperialism, compounded by racism and sexism. . . . Philanthropic giving is necessary in this time of vast wealth inequality, but we cannot do philanthropy with our left hand, while we perpetuate inequality with our right.
Hunt-Hendrix’s denunciation of capitalism as the source of poverty echoes that of Engels, who scorned philanthropy in his 1845 book The Condition of the Working Class in England (a personal favorite of Karl Marx):
As though you rendered the proletarians a service in first sucking out their very life-blood and then practicing your self-complacent, Pharisaic philanthropy upon them, placing yourselves before the world as mighty benefactors of humanity when you give back to the plundered victims the hundredth part of what belongs to them!
Marx, who famously dismissed religion as the “opiate of the people,” himself despised charity for deflecting proles’ attention from the class oppression they were supposed to overthrow. There are many things which blind the working class, he argued, “but the greatest of these is charity” (a mocking allusion to 1 Corinthians 13:13). “The social principles of Christianity preach cowardice, self-contempt, abasement, submission, dejection,” wrote the great socialist, “and the proletariat . . . needs its courage, its self-reliance, its pride and its sense of independence more than its bread.”
“So much for the social principles of Christianity,” he sneered.
Two centuries after his birth, it’s clear that Marx was wrong on just about everything. (Just ask those starving in Venezuela or who escaped from Cuba on makeshift rafts.) But he was undoubtedly right to have loathed caritas. After all, charity is the supposedly “cringing” Christian virtue that nevertheless proved a stumbling block to Karl Marx’s “great social revolution” time and again.