A Catholic Socialism? Part 3

The following was published on 30 September 2016 by “C.W. Strand” as the third essay in a three-part series on the possibility and nature of Catholic socialism. Part 1 can be found here and Part 2 here. It has been republished on Tradistae not as a full endorsement of its ideas but to provide an archive of the Tradinista project.

Note: The author of the following article situates himself in the socialist tradition, but is nevertheless of great interest to distributists, since he seeks to maintain private property and socialize the means of production in a subsidiary manner. At Tradistae, we believe that distributists ought to learn from leftist economists of good will, especially considering the words of Pope Pius XI: “it can come even to the point that imperceptibly these ideas of the more moderate socialism will no longer differ from the desires and demands of those who are striving to remold human society on the basis of Christian principles.” (Quadragesimo Anno § 114)

From our discussion in Parts I and II, we have concluded that a Catholic may indeed be a socialist, since our generic definition of socialism both escapes the popes’ condemnations of “socialism” and coheres with the moral principles that they delineate in several encyclicals. According to that generic definition, recall, “socialism” refers to “an economic system which, transcending the self-regulating market, subordinates a significant part of it to communal control.” But of course, this definition is highly abstract, and any concretely-existing socialism will have to fill out that definition in various ways. Even if socialism in the abstract is consonant with the Catholic faith, is this also true of any of socialism’s concrete species?

This question has been already addressed, in a fragmentary and implicit way, in the preceding two essays, as we have dispelled misunderstandings about the Church’s relation to socialism. But here we will take up the question explicitly and systematically. While our discussion will inevitably remain fairly general, we will attempt to provide at least a more specific account of what a Catholic socialism might look like.

It is important to note that we will be addressing the nature only of a Catholic socialism – there may well be other forms of Catholic socialism harmonious with the Church’s teachings, and there are certainly differences of opinion among Tradinistas. It is similarly important to mention that, of the various forms of socialism, there is no “correct” one abstractly; whether this form of socialism ought to be favored in that society depends upon that society’s particular circumstances – circumstances that are beyond our scope here. The following remarks, then, should be taken simply as programmatic ideals, indicating the broad contours of a Catholic socialism.

Property, livelihood, and the market

If socialism is to constitute a genuine alternative to capitalism, the key question we should ask is not whether it will contain markets or not, but rather what role markets will play in society. Under capitalism, markets impose a set of imperatives, as most workers must sell their labor-power in order survive and most capitalists must compete on the market or go under. These structural imperatives leave ordinary workers badly off, forced to accept low wages and abdicate creative control over their labor processes to capitalists because of the latter’s greater bargaining power on the market.

Markets impose a set of imperatives when one’s livelihood depends upon the market – especially the livelihood of ordinary working people. So the coerciveness of markets hinges critically (though not only) upon the system of wage-labor, in which the majority of people must sell their labor-power to some employer on pain of destitution. This is a system in which labor-power is commodified: the “production” of labor-power – which is simply the daily subsistence of the laborer – requires purchasing necessities on the market, which requires receiving a wage, which requires finding a job.

Breaking markets’ coercive hold over life would demand decommodifying labor-power. With labor decommodified, markets would undergo a transformation, now not imposing a set of imperatives, but rather becoming a realm of opportunities.1 Only when success on the market determines one’s livelihood do the “coercive laws of competition” exert all of their pressures; and in abolishing the former, we abolish the latter, putting people on a more equal footing on the market.

To see this more clearly, consider the nature of the market in those pre-capitalist societies in which the bulk of production is carried out primarily by independent peasant proprietors.2 Having direct access to means of production, these peasant proprietors are genuinely free to engage (or not) in market exchange, since they could produce for themselves everything that they need for survival. Because their livelihood is not dependent on the market, the market activities that they do engage in need not conform to the abstract standards of competitiveness, efficiency, and so forth that characterize markets under capitalism. Like the kid hired to mow one’s lawn that we mentioned in Part II, these peasants engage in market activity not because of any economic compulsion, but simply because of a desire to acquire some extra goods.3

With livelihood sustained independently of the market, those competitive pressures peculiar to capitalism – generated by the drive to accumulate capital – cease to exist. One may well wish to minimize labor-time, producing things more quickly rather than more slowly; but this desire for labor-minimization does not derive from any social imperative based on competition. Markets would still exist, but they – or their imperatives – would no longer regulate human life.4

The crucial task for socialists, then, is to make livelihood independent of the market – to decommodify labor-power and to abolish the wage-system. Note, however, that while making livelihood market-independent entails the decommodification of labor-power, the entailment does not run in the opposite direction: it is possible for labor to be decommodified, but for livelihood still to be dependent upon the market. This would be true, for instance, if each person had an individually-owned and -run business, or if the entire economy were composed of worker-managed cooperatives, all producing commodities for sale on the market. Here, while labor-power would be decommodified – which would indeed be a major moral improvement – people would still need to purchase on the market the things that they need to live.

Such a society may work for a time, but since livelihood would not yet be detached from the market, the dynamics of capitalism would soon reassert themselves. Engaged in commodity production, all individual and cooperative firms would compete – and so there would still be a drive to accumulate, expand production, and cut costs, with the result that some firms are driven off the market; successful firms become bigger, while unsuccessful producers become wage-laborers. Yugoslavia learned this the hard way: so long as livelihood depends upon the market, even an economy marked by a substantial level of worker self-management may soon fall prey to market imperatives, with reestablished capitalist social relations in the wings.

A genuinely market-independent livelihood for all, then, requires that the basic goods and services necessary for survival – at a decent, but not luxurious level – be produced in a non-market manner. This can be accomplished in several ways, of course, but three stand out. (1) Everyone could, in the first place, own their own means of production and produce, for themselves, everything that they need to live. This was the case in our envisioned peasant economy above. (2) Second, everyone could have use-rights over common property that they can then use to produce, for themselves, all the necessities of life. (3) Finally, there could be direct provision of basic goods and services by the state.

Our Catholic socialist society should certainly let people own small-scale private productive property, and so such a society ought partly to include private production for private consumption – option (1) above. People should, if they so desire, be able to grow their own food, educate their own children, build their own houses, etc. Nevertheless, while people could indeed produce many such things for their own consumption, that is certainly not possible for all of the things that they need in order to survive at anything like a “modern” standard of living. One could grow one’s own vegetables, but not easily perform one’s own brain surgery or make one’s own steel; and often the large investment of time required to produce some things for oneself prevents one from producing other necessary things.

Similar considerations hold true for option (2) – that is, for common property that individuals can have use-rights over (land, 3D printing supplies, communal workshops etc.). A commons could be a good way of “socializing” property without resorting to central planning, with the state carrying out only the minimal task of ensuring that no one intentionally destroys such common property. Once again, though, individuals can produce only so much for themselves. Many of the “needs” of modern life require high degrees of technology and skill, as well as many workers assembled together, and these cannot feasibly be produced by individuals for private consumption. There should indeed be a commons under socialism; but it will still be insufficient to secure a market-independent livelihood for all.

To achieve such a livelihood, our Catholic socialist society will need to include the direct provision of basic goods and services by the state – option (3) above. These could include healthcare, education, (some types of) food, water, housing, and the like, leaving it to particular societies to determine for themselves precisely which goods and services should be state-provided.5 Although furnishing citizens with the basic goods and services necessary to live, the state should nevertheless allow individuals to produce those goods and services for themselves – or even as part of worker cooperatives – as long as their production does not involve the exploitation of labor or violate the common good in some way.

State provision of basic goods and services would be superior to another, often-promoted attempt to divorce livelihood from the market: a universal basic income (UBI). While obviously a very good thing as far as it goes, a UBI unfortunately does not go far enough. Supposing that it could be implemented (which seems less likely than direct state provision), a UBI still leaves the production of basic goods and services subject to market forces, and our criticisms above – of labor-decommodification without total market-independence of livelihood – apply once again. While markets have many virtues, they are inefficient at accounting for externalities, coordinating investments, capturing social needs that are not expressed in money (“demand”), and suffer from various other failures and crises. Basic goods and services need to be provided in non-market ways.

As far as state provision is concerned, this will certainly involve some level of planning. Like markets, planning has difficulties, too, but these are of a surmountable sort when planning is kept within its limits. Complexity is one of these limits. While planning has many virtues – it can avoid the waste that markets produce, for instance in crises – it is inefficient when applied to an entire economy. All of the goods and services in an economy could not realistically be planned, nor would we want them to be. Planning part of an economy, on the other hand, is possible; and to maximize the potential of planning, we should restrict its scope.6 This scope should be limited to those goods and services necessary for citizens’ basic livelihood, as well as any large-scale production, carrying a social power too great to be left in the hands of private individuals. Likewise, planning should be restricted in geographic scope, undertaken as locally as possible and with democratic input from ordinary people (of which more later). So planning, here, does not equal central planning, and planning by the state does not exclude individual citizens from common deliberation over what “the plan” should be.7

While aiming at giving individuals access to basic goods and services, planning should not aim at maximizing work or making labor more productive through repetitive, mechanical tasks, where intellectual labor is split apart from manual labor. (Individual productive units, given general targets, should be free to produce as they see fit, introducing any labor- or time-saving innovations.) An economy befitting human nature should maximize not work, but rather leisure – and technological advances, the lack of market imperatives, and the ex ante coordination of planning could indeed make life more leisurely, with individuals likely needing to work only part-time to produce society’s basic goods and services. A life of greater contemplation – most importantly, contemplation of God – would become feasible for many, and this is one of the most important reasons for supporting socialism.

Individuals should also be free, if they so choose, to opt out of state-run work, becoming independent farmers, say, or forming communes. This would result in a decrease in the state-provided goods and services that they could acquire, although some very basic level would still be available to them. A good standard of living and non-exploitative work relations might, in any case, induce many or most people to work part-time for the state. (What happens if a large number of people opt out of work will have to be determined on a society-by-society basis. If enough opt out, the basic goods and services provided will have to be cut back. This may encourage people to return to state-run industries. If they do not, perhaps the state could provide incentives – e.g. certain “luxury” items available to those who work.)

It is worth noting that the demands of subsidiarity are respected under our proposed scheme of state provision of basic goods and services (and state ownership of large-scale industry). First, guaranteeing citizens a non-market livelihood is something that the state alone can do. Second, even if some non-state association could perform that function, it is certainly not a matter of “lesser importance” that, according to Pius in Quadragesimo anno (¶80), ought to be left to lower social levels. Third, lower levels are in any case not debarred from producing or acquiring their basic goods and services in other ways. State food production, for instance, does not prevent individual food production, nor does state provision of education prevent individuals themselves from educating their children. Subsidiarity, then, remains intact.

We can summarize the system of property and markets under our version of Catholic socialism. This is a society in which individuals may still own private property – both means of consumption and small- and perhaps medium-scale means of production, using these latter either to produce for themselves or to exchange on the market. Individuals, too, may form small productive enterprises established on a worker-cooperative basis, with rates of pay determined either within the enterprise or by the community as a whole. The market activities that individuals engage in will now be genuinely freer, because those individuals will not have to engage in them: their livelihood is not dependent upon the market. This market-independent livelihood is achieved partly through people producing for themselves – whether through privately-owned or common property – but above all through the direct state provision of basic goods and services.

The state

State provision brings us to the subject of the state itself. What sort of state do we imagine here? At the very least, under socialism, the state should exist in a radically different form from the modern nation-state. Of course, there will be some similarities: the rule of law – and the need for checks and balances to prevent any one part of the state from gaining too much power – will still need to be present, for instance. But there will be some important differences as well.

One difference concerns size. The modern nation-state has inflated as capitalism has developed, at least for the general reason that a large, independent state is necessary to serve the interests of a fragmented capitalist class. But a Catholic socialist state should be as local and decentralized as possible, giving maximal autonomy to self-governing communities. This is necessary so that, with capitalist exploitation abolished, centralized state bureaucrats do not take their places. State planning, then, should begin from below. Local or regional councils – both of producers and of consumers, and in which every citizen has a say – could deliberate about the sorts of basic goods and services that need to be produced. As far as possible, the state at the corresponding local or regional level should then be tasked with regulating the needed production. These local councils could elect representatives to serve at more national councils, whose concern would be with socially necessary production that must be carried out at that more national level. With heavy democratic input, planning should not be purely technocratic, but also based on prudence and ethics, aimed always at the common good; and we should favor not central, but rather decentralized planning.

Another difference concerns “abstractness.” A distinguishing feature of the modern nation-state is the fact that it is abstract in the sense of being abstracted from the lives of ordinary citizens. Partly, this abstractness involves considerations of size; but it is also manifest in the professionalization of politics (in which being a politician becomes a career path), in the fact that elected officials are not easily and continually recallable, and in the lack of transparency of the state’s operations. Our socialist state would, as far as possible, do away with these features, decreasing the distance between citizens and the state, as well as altering the functions of the state. This task will be made easier by the break-up of big business and large concentrations of wealth, which capitalists use to influence politics.

Most importantly, unlike modern nation-states, our Catholic socialist state should not be liberal. While space should be made for communal deliberation about the common good, that deliberation should concern the conception of the good to be embodied in society. Our socialist state can and should “legislate morality,” reflecting a substantive conception of the good in its organizations, laws, and practices. This conception of the good, moreover, ought to be the Catholic one, with the state encouraging people in virtue and placing God as our highest (and common) end. (No one, of course, should be forced to become Catholic; our teaching forbids this.) Although there is a broad scope for democratic decision-making in such a state, certain things must – if the Catholic understanding of the common good is to be upheld – nevertheless be off the table.8

It is useful here – related to the topic of the state – to address a worry that may arise. One of the pernicious features of capitalism is that workers, lacking direct access to means of production, must sell their labor-power to capitalists. The wage relation is thus a relation of economic compulsion, and socialism aims to abolish that relation. But the worry that arises is that economic compulsion will still exist under socialism. We have envisioned, for instance, individuals working part-time for the state or else receiving a diminution in their guaranteed, state-provided basic goods and services. Is this not a form of compulsion, too – merely by the state instead of by capitalists?

On the contrary, the two forms of “compulsion” are radically distinct. The difference consists in the way in which these forms of compulsion are ordered to the common good: the compulsion by the state is per se ordered to the common good (or at least can be so ordered), whereas the compulsion by capitalists9 is ordered to the common good, if at all, only per accidens. Capitalists may per accidens pursue the common good if their private interests happen to benefit society as a whole. But this is only accidental – and in truth, this “public benefit” is not really the common good, but rather an aggregate of individual goods. Further, there is no common good within the capitalist firm. The firm is ordered to the good of the capitalist, and to that of the workers only insofar as their good – subsisting or being sufficiently content so as not to revolt – is a means to the good of the capitalist. The relation here is very similar to that between master and slave, and as Alasdair MacIntyre writes, under capitalism it “becomes impossible for workers to understand their work as a contribution to the common good of a society which at the economic level no longer has a common good, because of the different and conflicting interests of different classes.”10

Just as violence exercised by a private vigilante is unjust, whereas violence exercised by an official of the state on behalf of the common good is just, so also in the case of compulsion. The state or its officers have care of the community, and they can compel for the sake of the common good. To compel, in the unjust sense, is to compel someone to do something that is against his nature; but since the common good is part of one’s own good, then to be “compelled” by the state to do something for the sake of the common good involves nothing immoral.

Revolution and resistance

Coming to the end of this sketch of a Catholic socialism, it is worthwhile to say something about how such a society might be achieved. The present author does not advocate, at least not in current circumstances, a revolution involving the seizure of state power. The experience of the past century has taught us that “those who make the conquest of state power their aim are always in the end conquered by it and, in becoming the instruments of the state, themselves become in time the instruments of one of the several versions of modern capitalism.”11 Resistance to capitalism all too often becomes co-opted by it; and as the modern state has been shaped as an organ of capitalist power, it is unsurprising that a socialist revolution that leaves that state structure intact eventually replicates capitalist social relations.12 While violent revolution may be necessary in extreme conditions (spelled out in the Catechism of the Catholic Church [2243]), such conditions are rare, and we should be attentive to the personal and institutional corruption that political violence can bring.

But if not by violent revolution seizing state power, then how should we resist capitalism and strive to realize socialism? This is a very difficult question, with no simple answers or guaranteed solutions, but we can nevertheless note four principal avenues of resistance – all four of which we should engage in. A first form of resistance is one of “negativity,” consisting simply in saying No to capitalism at many points. Second, more positively, we can resist by experimenting and creating new forms of sustainable, local communities. This is the “eggshell” revolution approach: to build the new society within the shell of the old, so that when the latter collapses, the former will already be in place. We need a multitude of localized, concrete experiments in socialism (such as Marinaleda in Spain). Third, while we should be highly suspicious of the modern nation-state, we should still attempt to make reforms to it, even while recognizing that these reforms will be very much insufficient to address the deeper problems with capitalism. Finally, crucial to resisting capitalism is a personal revolution, which consists above all in the cultivation of virtue and the frequent reception of the sacraments. To be sure, the remedy for our present economic woes is not to be found solely in individual virtue, just as the cause of those woes is not to be found solely in individual vice. But the cultivation of virtue and the infusion of grace from the sacraments are certainly an important, even if not sufficient, precondition for a more just society.

Social movements resisting capitalism must come from below. A top-down revolution will end only in disaster. This accords with the idea of “prefigurative” politics: if we want a new system that gives ordinary people a say in their common economic lives, then the means by which we establish that system must also give ordinary people a say. As Andrew Collier writes:

Workers’ councils (soviets) set up under capitalism as a means of resistance…may take power from the capitalists and become a new kind of state, a proletarian democracy. But a self-appointed revolutionary clique, seizing power with the intention of introducing socialism and then handing [it] over to the people, will never do so; its structure as a ruling clique shuts off this possibility. The “means” cannot lead to the envisaged end.13

Working with local anti-capitalist projects would also provide people with hands-on experience of grassroots cooperation and communal decision-making, helping them also to acquire a sense of what a non-bureaucratic socialist society could be like. Above all, our activities of resistance should be sustained by the virtue of hope, even while we are attentive to the ways in which capitalism can always stifle or co-opt such resistance.


Although conducted at a fairly abstract level, leaving out treatment of a number of issues, our foregoing discussion provides a sketch of what one form of Catholic socialism might look like. There are, of course, other forms. One might, for instance, deny the need for state provision of basic goods and services, favoring instead non-state guilds cooperating to determine the shape of production. Or, with a more sanguine appraisal of markets, one might promote an economy of worker cooperatives competing on the market, perhaps with funds for investment being socially controlled.14

Which form of socialism ought to be established in any particular society depends upon concrete circumstances, but it is nevertheless useful to articulate an ideal. That has been our task here, having already seen in Parts I and II how one can, in the abstract, be a Catholic and socialist. Catholic socialism, of course, faces immense difficulties in its implementation – not only from pro-capitalist economic elites, but also from secular forces hostile to the Catholic faith. But while Catholic socialism (like socialism in general) will not inevitably triumph, neither will it inevitably fail. We can only struggle.


  1. I owe this language – markets as “imperatives” vs. “opportunities” – to Ellen Meiksins Wood; see her The Origin of Capitalism: A Longer View (Suffolk, UK: Verso, 2002). 
  2. This was true of ancient Greece, even though surplus-labor was mostly produced by and extracted from slaves. 
  3. My discussion in this paragraph draws upon David McNally, Against the Market: Political Economy, Market Socialism and the Marxist Critique (King’s Lynn, UK: Verso, 1993), pp. 175-6. 
  4. Apologists for capital might complain that the resulting non-capitalist markets lack a “rational” pricing mechanism, which – in, say, Mises’s theory – requires all inputs into production, including labor, to be priced by the market. But the resulting “irrationality” is in fact something to be welcomed, signaling an end to the compulsions and fetishisms of capitalism. 
  5. John XXIII in Pacem in Terris ¶11 speaks of these – the “means necessary for the proper development of life” – as basic rights of humankind. 
  6. Consider the not-inconsiderable planning that already occurs in capitalist economies today, whether within firms or by the state. 
  7. Even restricted in scope, planning has, of course, come under criticism from bourgeois economists. For a good defense of planning against such criticisms, see McNally, Against the Market, pp. 197-213; and – though we disagree with some of what he says – Ernest Mandel’s “In Defence of Socialist Planning“. 
  8. For a proper understanding of the common good, the reader is strongly advised to consult Charles De Koninck’s On the Primacy of the Common Good.
  9. Or rather, the structural compulsion to work for capitalists. 
  10. Alasdair MacIntyre, “Three Perspectives on Marxism: 1953, 1968, 1995,” in Ethics and Politics: Selected Essays, Volume 2 (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2006), p. 148. 
  11. MacIntyre, “Three Perspectives on Marxism,” p. 150. 
  12. The Soviet Union, for example, functioned largely as a profit-seeking capitalist at the state level – engaged in trade with other states – with the entire population subject to international market imperatives. The case of the Soviet Union (and, more recently, of Venezuela) underscores the need for a socialist society to be as self-sufficient as possible 
  13. Andrew Collier, Christianity and Marxism: A Philosophical Contribution to Their Reconciliation (King’s Lynn, UK: Routledge, 2001), p. 118. 
  14. This is basically David Schweickart’s “Economic Democracy”; see his Against Capitalism (Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 1996).