What Thomism Has to Do With Marx

The following was published on 16 February 2017 by “Fergus Sandyford”. It has been republished on Tradistae not as a full endorsement of its ideas but to provide an archive of the Tradinista project.

Alasdair MacIntyre, Ethics in the Conflict of Modernity: An Essay on Desire, Practical Reasoning and Narrative (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2016).

In a touching passage cited by Augustine, Cicero warmly praises the scholar Varro. He writes that Varro led Romans home ‘‘when we were wandering and roaming like strangers in our own city, so that we could at least know who we were and where we were.”

For more than a few Roman Catholics today, the same could be written about Alasdair MacIntyre. His After Virtue has given Catholics who roam like strangers in what has become of Western civilization a map: MacIntyre shows us where we are, in a world of interminable ethical disagreements. And he shows us who we Catholics are, as bearers of a philosophical tradition that once made sense of what it would mean to live a good life: Thomism.

As with Varro’s rehabilitation of the Roman’s old pagan religion, MacIntyre is sometimes criticized for offering a reinterpretation, rather than a recovery, of Thomism. And so, like other defenders who engage our enemies on the outer ramparts of Fortress Catholicism, no small number of arrows sail towards MacIntyre’s back. But they miss the mark. To claim that MacIntyre is not another Thomist of the strict observance is simply to misunderstand the genre and audience of MacIntyre’s project. He writes for the philosophical layman estranged from the tradition of Aristotle and Thomas. For example, the argument in his latest book, Ethics in the Culture of Modernity: An Essay on Desire, Practical Reasoning, and Narrative, ends with natural theology, where questions of God and our final good begin.

With the help of our friends and good literature, we tell and retell the story of our lives to ourselves and others. MacIntyre’s emphasis on the importance of narrative makes Ethics in the Conflicts of Modernity a sequel to the last chapters of his famous After Virtue. As we tell the stories of our lives, we shape ourselves as ethical and political persons. MacIntyre suggests we take three philosophers on board to improve our understanding of what we desire and what might fulfill us: Aristotle, Thomas Aquinas, and Karl Marx.

Karl Marx! A great foe of religion, even among the terrible geniuses of 19th century Germany! I beg your patience, dear reader. MacIntyre shows us a way home with these three guides, and we will have to consider them in order.

Why Aristotle? If it is our friends who teach us how to live a fulfilling human life, it is Aristotle who supplies the vocabulary to call this life “good” or not. Human flourishing, or a good human life, is not like the flourishing of non-human animals. Other animals flourish when they are healthy and reproduce in a suitable environment. But there is a much greater range and diversity in what we would consider good human lives.

Aristotelians, in the broad sense of the term MacIntyre uses, consider the facts about what makes human beings fail to flourish. Our reasoning may begin in particular domains of our lives: what makes me a good mother, a good teacher, a good store-clerk, a good friend? It then branches out in reflection, is it a good life for me to be a father, a perpetual student, or an artist? As we reflect, we may encounter conflicts: is it better for me to be a good lawyer or a good friend? When, from our failures, we learn what virtues we require to acquire specific goods in our lives, we learn about what the good itself is for human beings.

One notices that, for MacIntyre, most clear-headed “Aristotelians” in history likely have never heard of Aristotle. To be an “Aristotelian” is to disagree with the modern skeptics, to argue that human beings are unique because we are animals with language.

Furthermore, to be “Aristotelian” is to further argue that, despite the great range of possible lives open to language-users, we can take a kind of external view of human lives (as we would the life of a dog or a squirrel) and deliberate with our friends about what is good or bad for our flourishing.

Why Thomas? Thomas liberates us from one confinement of Aristotelianism. For Aristotle, we must be virtuous and fortunate to live good lives. That Solonian pessimism, still runs through Aristotle: count no man happily fulfilled—eudaimon—till he is dead. How can we be said to live worthwhile lives, if suddenly tragedy strikes us in our old age, as it did Croesus and Oedipus? She who lives to be a mother — if her beloved child dies an untimely death, Aristotle must admit, her life is unfulfilled in the last analysis.

Thomas is an improvement, for MacIntyre, not because he discovers that the beatific vision is our final end. Theology — not even natural theology — does not enter the investigation. No, rather, Thomas corrects Aristotle by insisting that no finite end can be our final end, neither wealth nor honor, neither reputation nor power, neither health nor pleasure (ST I-II q. 2 a 1-8).

Our final end does not compete with other goods. Thomas opens “Aristotelianism” for all humans, not only those fortunate enough to be born citizens of classical Greek poleis. And, MacIntyre believes, Thomas renders Aristotle more consistent in the process.

If we do not imagine ourselves too clever by half for the aphorisms of G. K. Chesterton, we may have the notion that Thomism is the philosophy of common sense. Or, in MacIntyre’s more precise language in Three Rival Versions, “Aquinas was the philosopher par excellence or theoretical inquiry into practical life” (80). Yet MacIntyre does not think one must believe in God to be open to some final and ultimately desirable good for their lives. Everyone needs to sense of a final end beyond all finite goods, to have a good reason to live even if one is bereft of this or that important finite good.

Before turning to Marx, perhaps we should see how MacIntyre’s argument is already controversial. As soon as the gist of MacIntyre’s essay seems platitudinous, consider how controversial the argument is bound to be. He courts controversy by opening himself up to several kinds of critics. First, there are those partial to the book’s philosophical targets, expressivists and Nietzscheans. The refined cousins of the emotivists profiled in After Virtue, expressivists disagree with Aristotelianism as a metaethical theory, since they argue moral judgments only signal some psychological state related to a desire or preference. Nietzscheans like Bernard Williams—MacIntyre’s main interlocutor in the book—further attack Aristotelianism as an ethical theory, arguing that the desires of others must not impede me from living authentically, or responding to who I am. Second, there are the more numerous defenders of capital-M Morality, as MacIntyre styles it, those who defend a freestanding science of morals, with abstract principles knowable to all. Both groups of critics are likely to have a third kind of criticism:

Why Marx? Why Marx, indeed? Marx’s hostility to religion is well known. Though Marx is far from a Thomist, MacIntyre’s turn to ‘Marx, not Marxism’ does not bring him outside of the Aristotelian tradition. MacIntyre writes,

“Had Marx achieved the university teaching appointment that he had hoped for at Bonn in 1842, his first lectures would have been on Aristotle. In the years 1843–1845, while a radical journalist, he made a close study of Aristotle’s Politics. And when he refers to Aristotle in his mature economic writings, it is always with a kind of respect that he shows to few of his contemporaries. Indeed, he takes Aristotle to have described accurately the forms of economic exchange of the ancient Greek world and the history of their development. When he moves beyond Aristotle, in order to understand the distinctive economic forms and development of the modern world, he still employs key concepts as Aristotle used them: essence, potentiality, goal-directedness” (94).

Marx offers the modern Aristotelian a critique of political economy necessary for what he calls “sociological self-knowledge.” Marx explains why late modern moral agents misunderstand their social relationships, and their own lives, in the matrix of a consumer society. Today, we think of our productive activity as valuable only insofar as it serves the end of consumption. Sociological self-knowledge requires practical knowledge of not only the common goods of one’s family or workplace, but also the structures of power- and wealth-distribution that may shape how we understand and direct our desires. MacIntyre drives this point home, “Consider some particularly modern forms of opportunity and hope, insecurity and poverty, regret and lament, and ambition, all of them arising from the recurrent transformations of work as economic modernity developed” (120).

How do we develop good lives in late capitalist modernity? Capital-M Morality does not instruct us as to what goals to pursue. Instead, MacIntyre describes Morality, a secular project that can be shared by adherents of various religions and traditions, as necessary to the function of modern states and markets. It can regulate the behavior of corporate executives, who may otherwise pursue their profit-maximizing duties to their shareholders too far. It can regulate the behavior of politicians, who might otherwise get their hands too dirty in the pursuit of their duty to safeguard their constituents. Morality can be the basis of social critique. It may well be best, in the long run, to act according to the precepts of Morality. But what Morality cannot supply is a standard independent of our desires to tell us what we should pursue, or a reason for fulfilling our short-term desires.

MacIntyre rejects Morality not in the name of an “I,” like Nietzsche or Williams, but in the name of a “we.” For MacIntyre, we should develop good lives by deliberating with others about our common goods, and inform our desires by this reasoning. This involves deliberating about our goods qua our social roles, and also our goods qua human beings. We should aim not at happiness in the sense of maximizing pleasure, but at the happiness that comes from engaging in worthwhile activities that develop our human powers: physical, moral, aesthetic, and intellectual. MacIntyre claims that, while Aristotle articulates this conception of eudaimonia, it is a goal manifest in a wide range of pre-modern societies pursuing an even wider range of diverse common goods.

Ethics in the Conflicts of Modernity moves towards a political conclusion — indeed, it rebuffs the modern and decidedly un-Aristotelian divorce of ethics and politics — while only gesturing at questions of natural theology. Reviving worthwhile human activities, and making them possible for all people to develop their human powers, is vital to the common good. Since his 1998 essay “Notes from the Moral Wilderness,” MacIntyre has turned back to politics, and specifically Marx, and avoiding simply addressing individuals how to fulfill themselves. The pursuit of the common good requires all of us together. And in this we are greatly aided by not only Aristotle and Thomas, but Marx and MacIntyre.

A Radical Politics of Solidarity in the Age of Abortion

The following was published on 24 January 2017 by “M.W. Lucik”. It has been republished on Tradistae not as a full endorsement of its ideas but to provide an archive of the Tradinista project.

To commemorate the March for Life, we are pleased to present a series of essays on the abortion issue, presented from a left Catholic perspective. This is the first.

Abortion is seen primarily as a moral problem. That is, it is conceived of in terms of sin (or delict) first and foremost. And rightly so. The fathers of the Second Vatican Council called it an unspeakable crime (Gaudium et spes no. 51). And so it is. To the extent, furthermore, that abortion features in discussions of politics among Catholics, it is framed in moral terms. That is, Catholics frequently discuss whether or not it is morally licit to vote for a candidate who supports abortion, even if the candidate in other respects holds praiseworthy views. This is largely where the debate stays.

However, such an approach tends to separate the ethical from the political, which is an insupportable division. Politics and ethics are the same thing. I do not mean electoral politics, of course. I mean politics in an Aristotelian-Thomistic sense, which is very different. In short, politics is the creation of a virtuous people through laws (Ethic. X.viii–xv; ST I-II q.95 a.1 co.). Laws are, of course, dictates of practical reason ordered to the common good (ST I-II q.91 a.3 co.; I-II q.96 a.1 co. & ad 2.) This is a point that is often lost in political discussions, even among Catholics. The aim of politics is ultimately virtue and the common good. A given policy or platform is proposed because it bears a rational relationship to virtue and the common good. And, given that the dictates of natural reason are accessible to all men, it is not a matter of ideology, necessarily, to say that a given policy is or is not likely to produce a virtuous people or is or is not rationally related to the common good. Reason is not magic.

Considering abortion in this context, the question is whether laws permitting abortion (or euthanasia) produce a virtuous people or are rationally related to the common good. The first point is trivial: abortion does not produce a virtuous people. Slaughter does not create virtue. The question, then, is whether these laws are rationally related to the common good. This, too, seems like a trivial question. However, a clever interlocutor might frame the matter this: we tolerate for now the unspeakable crime of abortion in order to lead society gradually to virtue (cf. ST I-II q.96 a.2 ad 2). Or he might say that there are certain goods that we would lose through the outright repression of abortion (cf. ST II-II q.10 a.11 co.). Now, Aquinas specifically included murder among the vices that ought to be repressed (ST I-II q.96 a.2 co.). And it is impossible to conceive of a good that we would lose by suppressing abortion outright or a greater evil that would be caused.

But I wish to make another point: abortion is incompatible with true solidarity. And, for this reason, abortion is always and everywhere inimical to the common good. However, in the current stage of capitalism, the only hope for a just settlement of the state, to say nothing of productive property, is a radical politics of solidarity. This is true for a couple of reasons. First, it will be seen that solidarity and the common good are inextricably linked. Second, true solidarity, especially solidarity understood in Christian terms, is the antidote to the individualistic mindset at the core of capitalist exploitation, including the reduction of persons to mere instrumentality. It will be seen that abortion is incompatible with solidarity and, therefore, the common good. The question, then, is how a radical politics of solidarity may be forged in a society that embraces abortion and rejects the common good.

In order to demonstrate my points adequately, it will be necessary to introduce several lengthy quotations from magisterial sources. There is no way around it, as a radical politics of solidarity requires an understanding first of solidarity, which is a term that has specific content in the magisterium. Once the term is rightly understood, the manner in which one employs it radically becomes obvious. However, it is essential to understand the term rightly, as it has been and remains susceptible to abuse, particularly by secular leftists who distort it for their own ends.

In Sollicitudo rei socialis, St. John Paul II’s 1987 encyclical commemorating Bl. Paul VI’s Populorum progressio, the saint explored the concept of solidarity at great length. I begin, therefore, with John Paul’s thought, which has come to define solidarity in magisterial terms. He argued that

It is above all a question of interdependence, sensed as a system determining relationships in the contemporary world, in its economic, cultural, political and religious elements, and accepted as a moral category. When interdependence becomes recognized in this way, the correlative response as a moral and social attitude, as a “virtue,” is solidarity. (No. 38.)

He immediately drew the essential connection between solidarity and the common good:

This then is not a feeling of vague compassion or shallow distress at the misfortunes of so many people, both near and far. On the contrary, it is a firm and persevering determination to commit oneself to the common good; that is to say to the good of all and of each individual, because we are all really responsible for all. (Ibid.)

I note, briefly, that John Paul’s terse definition of the common good is profoundly Thomistic (cf. Charles De Koninck, The Primacy of the Common Good Against the Personalists, in The Writings of Charles De Koninck v.2 [McInerny, ed. 2009], pp. 74–76.) But questions of John Paul’s Thomism may be left for another day. What matters is that John Paul draws a clear connection between solidarity and the common good; indeed, just as “development” is the “new name for peace” in Paul VI’s formulation (cf. Populorum progressio no. 76), for John Paul solidarity is the new name for the common good.

Not content to leave the matter in fairly abstract terms, John Paul sketched a vision of what solidarity looks like in practice:

The exercise of solidarity within each society is valid when its members recognize one another as persons. Those who are more influential, because they have a greater share of goods and common services, should feel responsible for the weaker and be ready to share with them all they possess. Those who are weaker, for their part, in the same spirit of solidarity, should not adopt a purely passive attitude or one that is destructive of the social fabric, but, while claiming their legitimate rights, should do what they can for the good of all. The intermediate groups, in their turn, should not selfishly insist on their particular interests, but respect the interests of others. (No. 39.)

I observe that, before John Paul’s vision of solidarity is critiqued as reactionary or insufficiently revolutionary, John Paul placed great emphasis on the weaker elements of society claiming their legitimate rights. Indeed, he acknowledged that this process may involve social conflict, but he taught that social conflict, rightly conceived, is aimed at the common good (Centesimus annus no. 14). Turning from that question of rhetoric to the matter at hand, it is clear that John Paul’s vision of solidarity requires the members of a polity to recognize each other as persons.

Indeed, John Paul explicitly stated as much, when he taught that:

Solidarity helps us to see the “other”—whether a person, people or nation—not just as some kind of instrument, with a work capacity and physical strength to be exploited at low cost and then discarded when no longer useful, but as our “neighbor,” a “helper” (cf. Gen 2:18-20), to be made a sharer, on a par with ourselves, in the banquet of life to which all are equally invited by God. Hence the importance of reawakening the religious awareness of individuals and peoples. Thus the exploitation, oppression and annihilation of others are excluded. (Sollicitudo rei socialis no. 39.)

With his treatment in Sollicitudo rei socialis, John Paul made solidarity, as the magisterium understands it, clear. Solidarity requires us to view other people as people, eschewing a view that reduces them to mere instruments. This is ultimately a true commitment to the common good, conceived as the good of each and every member of the polity. And this commitment leads to an open and generous relationship between the members of society.

More recently, Francis speculated even more deeply about the causes of the instrumental view of persons that is so destructive of solidarity. In Laudato si’, his encyclical on care for our common home, the Holy Father observed that

A misguided anthropocentrism leads to a misguided lifestyle. In the Apostolic Exhortation Evangelii Gaudium, I noted that the practical relativism typical of our age is “even more dangerous than doctrinal relativism”. When human beings place themselves at the centre, they give absolute priority to immediate convenience and all else becomes relative. Hence we should not be surprised to find, in conjunction with the omnipresent technocratic paradigm and the cult of unlimited human power, the rise of a relativism which sees everything as irrelevant unless it serves one’s own immediate interests. There is a logic in all this whereby different attitudes can feed on one another, leading to environmental degradation and social decay. (No. 122.)

The Holy Father went on to detail numerous consequences of the “misguided anthropocentrism” he identified:

The culture of relativism is the same disorder which drives one person to take advantage of another, to treat others as mere objects, imposing forced labour on them or enslaving them to pay their debts. The same kind of thinking leads to the sexual exploitation of children and abandonment of the elderly who no longer serve our interests. It is also the mindset of those who say: Let us allow the invisible forces of the market to regulate the economy, and consider their impact on society and nature as collateral damage. In the absence of objective truths or sound principles other than the satisfaction of our own desires and immediate needs, what limits can be placed on human trafficking, organized crime, the drug trade, commerce in blood diamonds and the fur of endangered species? Is it not the same relativistic logic which justifies buying the organs of the poor for resale or use in experimentation, or eliminating children because they are not what their parents wanted? This same “use and throw away” logic generates so much waste, because of the disordered desire to consume more than what is really necessary. We should not think that political efforts or the force of law will be sufficient to prevent actions which affect the environment because, when the culture itself is corrupt and objective truth and universally valid principles are no longer upheld, then laws can only be seen as arbitrary impositions or obstacles to be avoided. (No. 123.)

While the Holy Father’s language is different, it is plain that he had in mind the issues John Paul raised in Sollicitudo rei socialis. For Francis, anthropocentrism, which joins with a technocratic, power-obsessed paradigm, leads inexorably to practical relativism, and practical relativism leads to the destructive instrumental view of persons. Ultimately, to return to John Paul’s language, it is care for the self above all others—as opposed to the care for others that is at the heart of commitment to the common good—that stands in opposition to solidarity.

It is, therefore, a diseased sense of self and the other that is at the root of any failure of solidarity. Indeed, John Paul made precisely this point in Centesimus annus, noting, “[w]hen man does not recognize in himself and in others the value and grandeur of the human person, he effectively deprives himself of the possibility of benefitting from his humanity and of entering into that relationship of solidarity and communion with others for which God created him” (no. 41). By exalting selfishness, particularly in a technocratic paradigm that combines an obsessive focus with convenience with the “cult of unlimited human power,” one closes himself off from the relationships necessary to submit to the common good. And when John Paul wrote that the selfish person “effectively deprives himself of the possibility of benefitting from his humanity,” it is impossible not to be reminded of the Thomistic point that human dignity is found only in submitting to the common good (see De Koninck pp. 88–93). The human who rejects true solidarity forfeits his dignity as a human.

Politics rightly conceived requires, we can see, radical solidarity. Recall that Aquinas teaches us that laws are dictates of practical reason ordered to the common good (ST I-II q.91 a.3 co.; I-II q.96 a.1 co. & ad 2.). We now know that solidarity and the common good are inextricably connected. Solidarity, John Paul taught, is a true commitment to the common good (Sollicitudo rei socialis no. 38). Indeed, politics rightly conceived is radical solidarity; one must be truly committed to the common good to exercise one’s natural reason to frame laws ordered to the common good. Insincere or insufficient commitment will inevitably lead one’s reason astray, and the laws will cease to be just. For proof of this, one needs only to look at any state dominated by the technocratic, anthropocentric paradigm. Francis precisely delineated the problem when he wrote, “when the culture itself is corrupt and objective truth and universally valid principles are no longer upheld, then laws can only be seen as arbitrary impositions or obstacles to be avoided” (Laudato si’ no. 123). Worse still, when the culture is corrupt and in thrall to practical relativism, the laws will often enshrine the corruption and the relativism. A radical politics of solidarity, a radical politics of the common good—politics rightly conceived—is the only remedy.

However, it is only in Christianity that one finds the foundations for a truly radical politics of solidarity. Returning to Sollicitudo rei socialis, we see:

In the light of faith, solidarity seeks to go beyond itself, to take on the specifically Christian dimension of total gratuity, forgiveness and reconciliation. One’s neighbor is then not only a human being with his or her own rights and a fundamental equality with everyone else, but becomes the living image of God the Father, redeemed by the blood of Jesus Christ and placed under the permanent action of the Holy Spirit. One’s neighbor must therefore be loved, even if an enemy, with the same love with which the Lord loves him or her; and for that person’s sake one must be ready for sacrifice, even the ultimate one: to lay down one’s life for the brethren (cf. 1 Jn 3:16). (No. 40.)

In other words, Christianity brings another dimension to the concept. One could, through natural reason, proceed to a place where one views the other as a person, with dignity and equality with every other person. However, Christianity, John Paul argued, takes us a step beyond that, to a place where the other is “the living image of God the Father, redeemed by the blood of Jesus Christ and placed under the permanent action of the Holy Spirit” (ibid.). And in that place, we are called to love the other and to sacrifice for his sake. Our submission to the common good, which is ultimately the root of true solidarity, becomes a submission not merely to the temporal common good but also to the spiritual common good. And it is in that submission that we become truly human (cf. De Koninck pp. 88–93.).

It is not necessary to dwell at length on the radical nature of a politics of love and sacrifice. Such a politics is a total rejection of the corrupt liberal state, which idealizes relativism and individualism. However, despite being founded in love, it is not a passive or destructive politics (cf. Sollicitudo rei socialis no. 39). It insists, out of love, on the intrinsic value of all persons and on their rights in society. And it opposes, even to the point of sacrifice and conflict, anyone who would diminish the value of those persons or their rights (Centesimus annus no. 14).

With all this in mind, we turn back to abortion with Benedict XVI’s provocative analysis in his social encyclical, Caritas in veritate:

Openness to life is at the centre of true development. When a society moves towards the denial or suppression of life, it ends up no longer finding the necessary motivation and energy to strive for man’s true good. If personal and social sensitivity towards the acceptance of a new life is lost, then other forms of acceptance that are valuable for society also wither away. The acceptance of life strengthens moral fibre and makes people capable of mutual help. By cultivating openness to life, wealthy peoples can better understand the needs of poor ones, they can avoid employing huge economic and intellectual resources to satisfy the selfish desires of their own citizens, and instead, they can promote virtuous action within the perspective of production that is morally sound and marked by solidarity, respecting the fundamental right to life of every people and every individual. (No. 28.) 

Abortion and euthanasia are fundamentally a refusal to acknowledge the infant in the womb or the elderly or dying person as a person, “to be made a sharer, on a par with ourselves, in the banquet of life to which all are equally invited by God” (Sollicitudo rei socialis no. 39). They are, in this sense, contrary to true solidarity, as John Paul outlined it for us. But recall that John Paul taught that solidarity and care for the common good are inextricably linked; they are, in fact, the same thing. Thus, anything contrary to true solidarity is contrary to the common good. The force, then, of Benedict’s argument is manifest. When a polity “moves toward the denial or suppression of life,” it moves toward a negation of the common good expressed as solidarity.

Compare also John Paul’s fruits of solidarity in Sollicitudo rei socialis (no. 39) with Benedict’s fruits of openness to life. They are essentially the same list. It is obvious why. It is impossible for the stronger to render to the weaker what is theirs by justice if the weakest in society are seen in purely instrumental terms; likewise, it is impossible for the weaker to adopt a healthy attitude toward the common good—neither falling into passivity nor destroying the social fabric—if, in the background of all their decisions, they know that they are ultimately disposable when of no further use. In essence, the common good requires us to view the other as a person, not a tool or an abstraction, but abortion is premised entirely on treating the other as a tool or an abstraction. Openness to life, then, is a necessary part of solidarity and, by extension, the common good.

Likewise, Benedict and Francis are on the same page. A diseased anthropocentrism leads to practical relativism, which finds it expression in many ways. The practical relativism that demands untrammeled capitalism demands also the right to kill children “because they are not what their parents wanted” (Laudato si’ no. 123). For example, it is impossible, once this practical relativism finds a voice, for wealthy people to find solidarity with poor people and work toward “virtuous action within the perspective of production that is morally sound” (Caritas in veritate no. 28). In other words, rapacious capitalism and a right to abortion are inextricably linked: if the baby is not a person, but an abstraction or an instrumentality, what hope does the worker have? Indeed, one can say that abortion and predatory capitalism, as Francis argued in Laudato si’, are two sides of the same coin.

A politics founded on Christian solidarity is obviously radical, nowhere more obviously so than in the context of abortion. We have seen that solidarity that ignores the unborn is no solidarity at all; indeed, it is a grotesque parody of solidarity, warped and demented in the hateful service of an unspeakable crime. It is, so far from a commitment to the common good, an assault on the very idea of the common good. And no Christian can make such an assault. The child in the womb—no less than oneself—is the living image of the Father, as John Paul taught, capable of being redeemed by the blood of Christ through baptism. The Christian, therefore, must love the child in the womb as God loves him or her, including standing ready to sacrifice much for that child. And if social conflict is necessary, that, too, is an expression of the concern for the common good and the love that the Christian must hold.

It is only in that sacrifice that we can forge the radical politics of solidarity—the politics of love—that is necessary to move past the failed liberal paradigm.

Aristotle, Thomas, Marx: A Dialogue

The following was published on 3 January 2017 by “Juan Martinez”. It has been republished on Tradistae not as a full endorsement of its ideas but to provide an archive of the Tradinista project.

We are pleased to publish this dialogue on the subject of reconciling Marx with the Aristotelian-Thomist tradition.

STEPHANUS: Why do you guys care so much about Marx? Marx is overrated AND boring as all get out!

BRONTIUS: I’m down with Marx. Stephanus, who do you recommend we turn to for political economy?

STEPHANUS: Marx gets some things right–though often accidentally it seems–so I’ve no problem with limited applications of Marx in certain areas. But articles that ignore Marx’s Hegelian roots, or the many many erroneous metaphysical assumptions behind Marx’s thought can only be of limited value.

I’m no expert, though, so I’m happy to be proven wrong here.

I should also qualify the boring bit–plenty of Marx (and more so for Engels) is quite entertaining. But when he isn’t writing for the masses, he has far too much of the dry German academic style for my taste.

BRONTIUS: If you are worried about Marx’s supposed Hegelism, I’m sure Carolus could put you at ease.

STEPHANUS: Marx is Hegel upside down and backwards, no? I mean the same theory but matter instead of spirit at the end.

It has been 8 years since I read Marx or Hegel, so apply salt liberally to all I say here.

CAROLUS: I don’t suggest that Hegel had no influence on Marx (and neither does Meikle). On the contrary. (And a lot of good work has been done trying to highlight Hegelian elements in Marx, especially by so-called Value-Form Theorists like Chris Arthur or Geert Reuten.) But the questions to consider are: To what extent did Hegel influence Marx? What aspects of Hegel’s thought influenced Marx? Are those aspects amenable to Aristotelianism? (I won’t provide anything like a complete answer here, of course.)

In regard to his later work, his own remark (in the Postface to the Second Edition of Capital) that he “coquetted with the mode of expression peculiar to” Hegel sums up well the Hegelian element in that work. It’s not difficult to see why Marx would “coquette” with Hegel. Hegel’s method finds its roots in the study of organic beings and is, in effect, that study applied to all that exists. (Here the strange fact that Hegel means by “contradiction” what Aristotle means by “contrariety” becomes intelligible: contraries become “contradictory”––in the sense of materially incompatible––most clearly in organisms; as Hegel says in the Preface to the Phenomenology, the flower “negates” the bud, in the sense that, given the nature of the organism and its natural development, flower and bud cannot coexist.)

Marx adopts this “organic” approach, too, but in reference to society (as does Aristotle, of course, in the opening of the Politics, where he treats society as a “natural growth”). This approach is exhibited by a review of Capital, Vol. I, that Marx favorably cites:

Of still greater importance to [Marx] is the law of their [social-economic phenomena’s] variation, of their development, i.e. of their transition from one form to another, from one series of connections into a different one…The old economists misunderstood the nature of economic laws when they likened them to the laws of physics and chemistry. A more thorough analysis of the phenomena shows that the social organisms differ among themselves as fundamentally as plants or animals…The scientific value of such an inquiry lies in the illumination of the special laws that regulate the origin, existence, development and death of a given social organism and its replacement by another, higher one.

Marx then comments: “Here the reviewer pictures what he takes to be my own actual method, in a striking and, as far as concerns my own application of it, generous way. But what else is he depicting but the dialectical method?” (It also throws light on Marx’s conception of “dialectic, -s, -al” that he calls Aristotle a “truly dialectical” thinker; given how Marx conceives of dialectic, this is a fair characterization. Early on––around the time that he wrote the first German translation and commentary of the De Anima, as well as a partial translation of the Rhetoric––Marx intended to write a book on Aristotle defending him against the idealist interpretations of Trendelenburg.) His method is the “opposite” of Hegel’s in the sense that he begins, not from “the Idea” or the World-Spirit manifesting itself in history, but from particular forms of social life and particular individuals––individuals who, in responding to social conditions and in attempting to better their lives, bring about social change (often slowly and unconsciously).

This is also the crux of the “materialist” view of history. This is not any materialism according to which there exists only matter and nothing else. (An excellent article here is George Kline’s “The Myth of Marx’s Materialism,” which I can upload if people wish.) Indeed, that sort of materialism comes under criticism from Marx in many places: in the Holy Family, he calls French materialism a “metaphysically travestied nature severed from man”; in Capital, he rejects “the abstract materialism of natural science”; etc. (He is perhaps a “materialist” in the minimal sense that he thinks that e.g. pure spirits do not exist; but this is quite compatible with seeing material beings as having forms or essences. Marx in fact adopts just such a view. As he says against Hegel, the “universal is the essence of the finite real”: e.g. the “State” is not some eternal concept existing independently of history, but it has validity as a concept only because it picks out the essence of some particular things, i.e. of states.) By a “materialist” view of history, Marx means a view that accords explanatory primacy, not to the Hegelian “Idea,” but rather to the economic and social practices of individuals in particular societies. The “necessity” of history is not deterministic, but is (in Aristotle’s sense) the necessity by which a seedling develops into a tree; given that human nature is what it is, and given that particular societies have real natures (even if they’re only quasi-substances, or “compounds,” as Aristotle calls them), those societies will have a tendency to develop in certain ways––though, of course, accidents are always possible. While it’s mistaken to identify Engels’s thought with Marx’s, Engels speaks for both in a late letter of his:

“According to the materialist conception of history, the ultimately determining element in history is the production and reproduction of real life. Neither Marx nor I have ever asserted more than this. Therefore if somebody twists this into saying that the economic factor is the only determining one, he is transforming that proposition into a meaningless, abstract, absurd phrase. The economic situation is the basis, but the various components of the superstructure…also exercise their influence upon the course of the historical struggles and in many cases determine their form in particular.”

And as he writes elsewhere,

“our conception of history is above all a guide to study, not a lever for construction after the matter of the Hegelians. All history must be studied afresh…But instead of this too many of the younger Germans simply make use of the phrase historical materialism (and everything can be turned into a phrase) only in order to get their own relatively scanty historical knowledge…constructed into a neat system as quickly as possible.”

There’s much more that could be said, but I will stop. Even if Meikle (and many other commentators) are wrong about Marx, however, something like the Aristotelian Marxism that he outlines is philosophically plausible and, I think, simply right. Much of what Marx says is, in any case, quite compatible with an explicitly Aristotelian-Thomistic foundation. Undoubtedly, certain elements of Marx’s thought need to be corrected––but that is no reason to disregard him. On the contrary, he has much to teach us.

STEPHANUS: Carolus, I’m mulling over what you say, and I’ll respond more at length. As for the Aristotelian bit, what do you make of Marx’s and Engles’s denial of quality–they both reduce quality simply to quantity, do they not?

CAROLUS: I’m not sure what you mean; which works/passages are you thinking of? But that claim strikes me as going against just about everything Marx wrote.

STEPHANUS: It may have been Engels, but I take him here to have been following Marx, who gave the example of color being reducible to quantity, and all “qualities” similarly being reducible to quantity. I’ll try to find the passage in a moment, but it was quite explicit.

Marx’s materialism may not be the materialism of some of the stupider naturalists of today, but he was far from Aristotle or Thomas, on my read at least. That doesn’t mean he has no value as to economic or political issues, but I’m personally wary of relying heavily on the ethical theories of those who are in error as to the philosophy of nature.

CAROLUS: Ah; perhaps Engels could have said such a thing, but it’s at best highly questionable whether his stuff on metaphysics, e.g. “Dialectics of Nature,” would be endorsed by Marx. Much of what Engels says about e.g. history, society, etc. is generally in accord with Marx; but when he turns to metaphysics, things become quite doubtful. But it’s hard to see, anyway, how Marx himself could reduce quality to quantity; Chapter 1 of Capital, for instance, relies on the contrast between the two. (There Marx also says: “Not an atom of matter enters into the objectivity of commodities as values; in this is it the direct opposed of the coarsely sensuous objectivity of commodities as physical objects.”)

Marx didn’t, of course, hold philosophical views identical to Aristotle or Thomas. To suppose that would be silly. But he can at least be regarded as an Aristotelian in a broad sense (what might be called a metaphysical realist or real essentialist). I haven’t mentioned Marx’s “ethical theory” so far, but I think that it’s also broadly Aristotelian (i.e. human beings are creatures with particular natures and hence with particular needs, and since they are political animals, they flourish in communities). It is perhaps wrong to rely “heavily” on Marx’s ethical theory; yet I do think that that theory is correct in broad outlines, but it certainly requires supplementation/revision in a more Aristotelian-Thomistic direction. (I don’t think, though, that Marx is in any serious error about the philosophy of nature.)

Are you thinking of this passage from “Dialectics of Nature”?:

In the first place, every qualitative infinity has many quantitative gradations, e.g. shades of colour, hardness and softness, length of life, etc., and these, although qualitatively distinct, are measurable and knowable.

In the second place, qualities do not exist but only things with qualities and indeed with infinitely many qualities. Two different things always have certain qualities (properties attaching to corporeality at least) in common, others differing in degree, while still others may be entirely absent in one of them. If we consider two such extremely different things – e.g. a meteorite and a man – together but in separation, we get very little out of it, at most that heaviness and other corporeal properties are common to both. But an infinite series of other natural objects and natural processes can be put between the two things, permitting us to complete the series from meteorite to man and to allocate to each its place in the interconnection of nature and thus to know them.

Supposing that Engels does indeed speak for Marx here, this passage certainly doesn’t show that quality is nothing but quantity. To say that qualities admit of various intensities––a kind of quantitative measurement––doesn’t turn quality into quantity. Nor does saying that qualities don’t exist independently, but are always qualities of some thing (a thing which will typically have quantitative dimensions as well), reduce quality into quantity.

NICODEMUS: Carolus – in light of this use of the acorn analogy and Hegel’s essentialization (effectively) of accidental change by the conflation of contrariety and the contradictory, what would he say about the family and the village as they exist in a developed state? Or, for that matter, the individual? More generally, what about any private good or limited non-ultimate common good?

Finally, how does this determine his view of economics? Your explanation makes me real curious about all these things.

CAROLUS: The family is not a monad, and will be affected by the society around it. (As MacIntyre says: “The family flourishes only if its social environment also flourishes…Generally and characteristically then the goods of family life are achieved in and with the goods of various types of local community.”) Marx was sensitive to this, and saw capitalism as deforming the modern family, turning the latter into “a mere money relationship,” disembedding people (in order to seek work) from their families and families from communities, etc. Hence he regarded appeal to the “sanctity” of the family as hypocritical. Marx, and especially Engels, was also aware of the various forms (often, unsavory in character) that the family has taken throughout history. And Marx, but Engels more vociferously, called for the abolition of the bourgeois family. What this would be replaced by under communism is not entirely clear. In any event, I don’t, of course, endorse all or most of Marx’s views on the family, but I do agree with two points: (1) the bourgeois (“nuclear”) family is problematic; but that doesn’t mean that the family itself ought to be done away with, but rather that families need to be more integrated with their communities and with other relatives. (2) The precondition for the flourishing of families is a flourishing society, and a step towards the latter would be the abolition of capitalism in favor of…[communism, distributism, etc.; I try not to cook up recipes for the future]. While Aristotle may have regarded the polis as the form of society adequate to human nature, Marx would argue that only a communist society could be so. (This is not to say, of course, that there wouldn’t be problems in communist society. Far from it. Even if many ills are socially conditioned, human beings are always and everywhere wicked; there would still be natural inequalities among individuals; diseases and afflictions of various kinds would still be present; some form of the rule of law would still be necessary; etc.)

Concerning the individual, perhaps the most legitimate complaint that one might have with Marx is not that he drowned the individual in a sea of collectivism, but rather the opposite: that his social philosophy is too individualistic. The prominent place of the individual is a theme that echoes throughout all of Marx’s work, from earliest to latest. (i) In the Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844, he writes that, under communism, “[e]very one of your relations to man and to nature must be a specific expression…of your real individual life,” rather than your life being alienated as under capitalism. (ii) In the German Ideology, he says:

“in a communist society, where nobody has one exclusive sphere of activity but each can become accomplished in any branch he wishes, society regulates the general production and thus makes it possible for me to do one thing today and another tomorrow, to hunt in the morning, fish in the afternoon, rear cattle in the evening, criticise after dinner, just as I have a mind, without ever becoming hunter, fisherman, shepherd or critic.”

This is a romanticized picture, of course, but it brings to light the emphasis on the individual in Marx. (iii) In the Grundrisse, communism is characterized as “free exchange among individuals who are associated on the basis of common appropriation and control of the means of production.” (iv) In Capital, communism is envisioned as “a community of free individuals, carrying on their work with the means of production in common.” (v) Finally, in Marx’s first work on political economy, the “Comments on James Mill,” he writes:

“Let us suppose that we had carried out production as human beings. Each of us would have in two ways affirmed himself and the other person. 1) In my production I would have objectified my individuality, its specific character, and therefore enjoyed not only an individual manifestation of my life during the activity, but also when looking at the object I would have the individual pleasure of knowing my personality to be objective, visible to the senses and hence a power beyond all doubt. 2) In your enjoyment or use of my product I would have the direct enjoyment both of being conscious of having satisfied a human need by my work, that is, of having objectified man’s essential nature, and of having thus created an object corresponding to the need of another man’s essential nature. 3) I would have been for you the mediator between you and the species, and therefore would become recognised and felt by you yourself as a completion of your own essential nature and as a necessary part of yourself, and consequently would know myself to be confirmed both in your thought and your love. 4) In the individual expression of my life I would have directly created your expression of your life, and therefore in my individual activity I would have directly confirmed and realised my true nature, my human nature, my communal nature. Our products would be so many mirrors in which we saw reflected our essential nature…My work would be a free manifestation of life, hence an enjoyment of life.”

Further, Marx plausibly holds to a trans-historical conception of human nature. References to human nature appear again and again in Marx’s early work, but they also do so in Capital. In the context of critiquing Bentham’s utilitarianism, he writes:

“To know what is useful for a dog, one must investigate the nature of dogs…Applying this to man, he that would judge all human acts, movements, relations, etc. according to the principle of utility would first have to deal with human nature in general, and then with human nature as historically modified in each epoch.”

When Marx speaks sometimes about how people, in transforming nature through their work, also transform their own natures, this needn’t be read as saying that human beings essentially alter their natures (what would that even mean?), but simply that they realize certain potentials within human nature, acquire new social relations and skills, etc. Effectively the only passage that would seem to indicate that Marx denied any trans-historical human nature comes in the Sixth Thesis on Feuerbach: “But the essence of man is no abstraction inherent in each single individual. In reality, it is the ensemble of the social relations.” This enigmatic statement can certainly be read in various ways, but it needn’t necessarily be read as denying any nature to human beings apart from that given by their social relations. Indeed, one year earlier, in the “Comments on James Mill,” Marx wrote something very similar but which makes clear that he’s not denying some trans-historical human nature:

“[A]s long as man does not recognise himself as man, and therefore has not organised the world in a human way, this community appears in the form of estrangement, because its subject, man, is a being estranged from himself. Men, not as an abstraction, but as real, living, particular individuals, are this entity. Hence, as they are, so is this entity itself. To say that man is estranged from himself, therefore, is the same thing as saying that the society of this estranged man is a caricature of his real community, of his true species-life…”

(MacIntyre also reads the Sixth Thesis in the same way that I do, in his article “The Theses on Feuerbach: A Road Not Taken”; and a painstaking defense of the same view is given by Norman Geras in his book, Marx and Human Nature.)

All of this also throws light on the issue of “private goods” or “limited non-ultimate common goods.” Marx certainly respects the goods of individuals and does not sacrifice them for the sake of “Utopia” (as happened tragically in the USSR and elsewhere). Communism, on his view, is precisely a way of respecting those goods: abolishing the anarchic and agonistic “free market”––especially the labor market––and establishing better (more human) way of working and allocating resources.

I’ve already said too much, but let me say something about Marx’s “organicist” and essentialist approach to society in relation to economics.

First, Marx was not an economist; he was rather, as the subtitle of Capital puts it, offering a “critique” of political economy. Although he doesn’t say what exactly he means by “critique,” it’s perhaps best understood in the sense of Kant’s critiques: a critical examination of the limits of political economy.

Second, Marx’s approach to society gives a prominent place to the specific social form of the economy under consideration. As he writes in relation to society:

“Our general definitions do not advance our understanding. An explanation…which fails to supply the differentia is no explanation at all…[T]he real subjects…are and remain uncomprehended because their specific nature has not been grasped.”

Marx’s main complaint against the “political economists”––and all those who adopt the perspective of “methodological individualism”––is their abstractness. In e.g. their Robinsonades, they seek to derive laws of economics that are valid always and everywhere, but Marx thinks that such laws can only be trivial and hence of little explanatory significance. For instance, even if it were true that agents always act so as to maximize self-interest, that tells us very little about what conceptions of self-interest individuals have, what social conditions constrain individuals’ pursuit of self-interest, etc. Without bringing in the specificities of the society in question, economics is apt to become a peddler of “general definitions” that are uninformative for understanding particular societies.

Third, for Marx, laws express natures. The economic laws of a certain society are what they are because that society is what it is. Hence e.g. Marx’s “law of value” (i.e. the tendency for commodities to be sold according to the amount of “socially necessary [abstract] labor-time” embodied in them [or rather, at their “prices of production,” which is determined by socially necessary labor-time]) does not apply always and everywhere, but rather only to capitalist society. Only with the formal independence of economic firms, with widespread competition, with production for the sake of profit-making, with large-scale industry, and with money mediating all economic transactions does the law of value hold sway.

Fourth, Marx maintains that, just as the parts of an organism cannot be understood in isolation from the whole, so also features of the economy must be seen in their interrelation to one another. Hence Marx rejects an atomist or empiricist or individualist approach to political economy.

Fifth, societies are not always entirely harmonious wholes. This is because the “matter” of societies is human beings. But human beings are not indeterminate lumps of matter, but have natures of their own. Since society is not strictly a substance, but only a quasi-substance, there is the possibility for the “material” element, i.e. human beings and their activities, to be out of tune with the form of society. As a very peculiar sort of matter (again, where matter is simply contrasted with form), human beings and their social relations––and “productive forces”––can develop in ways that run against the prevailing social order, and this can sometimes produce a revolution. (This is in addition to the other “contradictions” immanent in a social formation.)

Note that when Marx talks about “productive forces” as the motor of history, these do not include only e.g. bare technology or tools; they also include the social form in which production is carried out. For instance, it’s not merely the existence of machinery and other advanced technology that paves the way for communism; it’s the collective knowledge that workers in e.g. factories have that makes it possible. As some (e.g. libertarian socialists like Kevin Carson) argue, the way in which large capitalist corporations are organized is in fact highly inefficient: here the capitalist class relations actually hinder the efficient deployment of “productive forces” (or “natural or social power[s] of labour”). Only what Marx calls “associated labor”––workers working in cooperation with one another––can efficiently deploy those forces.

Further, as Engels notes, in every generation, there is always some sort of resistance to the forms of exploitation that prevail. The effectiveness of such resistance, however, depends upon how developed the productive forces are. If new productive forces are not already present, even inchoately, in the current society, then a revolution will not be successful, since it could not sustain a new kind of society.

CAEDMON: I would be happy to hear a great deal more of this, Carolus.

NICODEMUS: I am actually very much enjoying this, because even though I think what Marx wrought was poisonous, I also think he is often not clearly understood and it is a genuine joy to see someone carefully and impartially explaining his philosophical character. Really, thank you – this is the stuff that makes arguments into discussions.
I am a bit busy, but I wonder whether most economists wouldn’t respond by saying “granting Marx’s critique, none of us are preparing to establish a set definition of self-interest; if you give a definition we will show how that definition demands certain rules of economic action that are at least analogous developments of reason about the logic of quantifying value and what those result in for your material situation; and privately we disagree on what self-interest is.”

For example, Acton’s folks have a notion of self-interest that, whatever the flaws, undeniably involves some elements of virtue-based piety, avoidance of sin, etc., whereas IHS is described as “the Institute for Heroin and Sodomy” as a not-quite joke. There are different notions there about the purpose of the human person and I wonder whether one can entirely eliminate self-interest from any human equation considered as the act of the will based in, for example, apprehension of one’s own dignity.

The question in the end becomes whether it is possible to integrate a paradoxically selfless self-interest into the social scheme – a self-interest that recognizes for example that our life belongs to God and that it IS our good to do His Will. But this is I think not something easy to discuss in the context of economics and I would be interested in hearing arguments as to why self-interest can ONLY mean something opposed to this.

STEPHANUS: The Engels text is quite clear–it is in the Anti-Duhring. He uses the example first of calculus–which we should recall was poorly understood and taught back then–and then of water. A change in quantity of temperature changes ice into water into vapor. Engels writes “the quantity is transformed into quality”.

But would Marx reject Engels here? I’m not so sure. I will continue mulling this over.

In praise of Marx–or Marx as read by Meikle at least–I do think that he understood in an important way the way in which Capitalism commodifies even man himself.

As for the “Aristotelian” bit, Marx badly misunderstands the common good, Marx (or at least Engels) badly misunderstands metaphysics in his disastrous notion (taken in a modified way from Hegel) of contradiction. De Koninck himself recognizes that the Marxist of his day “holds Aristotle in esteem,” but in doing so the Marxists completely bungle Aristotle’s teachings–or if they do not misunderstand what Aristotle was saying they think he was wrong but in a sort of precursory pointing to the future type of way.

Marx (and Hegel as well) are very unclear about what contradiction is and speak of it in different ways in different places. This is partially because what they seek to establish is so wrong that no-one could consistently hold it all the time–indeed, their idea is against consistency itself!–but at least in some places they hold actual contradiction as being objectively accomplished and actually existing in the real world.

This is, of course, a colossal bungle! While it is true that Aristotle (or Aristotelians and Thomists will say, at least, including myself) that motion is a certain mixture of being and non-being, this is possible first because non-being is taken in two sense: (1) in the sense of potency, i.e. non-being here is already a division of being as such, and the non-being is nothing other than being in potency, and second in an absolute sense, non-being as opposed to being as such simply. And second, this is possible because motion is not a mixture which is determinately in act, but rather is the act of the potential as such.

Marxists at least (again, I apologize for not referring to Marx himself, but he is lengthy, difficult, and also his thought changed over time. I’ll try to see if Marx himself is better than Marxists including Engels, but if that is the case then Marx would be correct while “Marxism” would be false for all the reasons stated), in fact take motion to be an actual contradiction, not merely a possible contradiction. IOW, Marxism attributes to “being” things that can only be true of “becoming.”

This is no small error.

So much for Marxism’s “metaphysics.”

Again, as for his political and ethical thought–it is monstrous! And rather than be longer winded than I already have been, I’ll merely point to De Koninck’s “The Primacy of the Common Good Against the Personalists”, “The Principle of the New Order”, and “In Defense of St. Thomas.” Suffice it to say that Marx radically misunderstands the nature of the common good.

In brief — Marxism does not require supplementation. It requires a correction and reworking — a repudiation even! — of its first principles. That Marxism is trenchant in its criticism of capitalism I will grant, but this says more about the broad and easy nature of the target than it does about the accuracy or goodness of the archer.

CAROLUS: Nicodemus, sorry, that bit on self-interest was mainly my own example of an un-illuminative abstraction of economics. (Some of the abstractions that Marx mentions would be e.g. defining capital merely as a “thing” (rather than also as a social relation), such that it can be said that capital exists in all societies; talking about “exchange” in abstraction from the ways in which the exchanged goods were produced; viewing money as a “veil” beneath which the true economic relations exist; and so on.) Marx doesn’t talk much about self-interest per se, but he does talk about “utility,” and he says basically the same thing: even if it’s true that people seek to maximize utility, this doesn’t really explain much, since how people maximize their utility is highly dependent upon social conditions, and insofar as political economy abstracts from these social conditions, it prevents itself from throwing light on the workings of capitalist society––at least as these workings differ from those of other economic formations. (It also follows that, insofar as one attempts to derive substantive conclusions merely from considerations of utility, one will be smuggling the social content in, often for “ideological” purposes. MacIntyre makes basically the same point vis-à-vis utilitarianism in After Virtue.)

Anyway, it’s trivially true that people pursue “self-interest” in some sense. But not much follows from this. And self-interest isn’t necessarily a bad thing. As Thomas teaches after all, love of self (which is perhaps a variety of self-interest, good self-interest, interest in what’s good for oneself) is the foundation for the love of others. (Cf. David Gallagher’s good essay on this subject, “Thomas Aquinas on Self-Love as the Basis for Love of Others.”)

Stephanus, regarding you objections, I would say this: undoubtedly, Engels adheres, in Anti-Dühring and in Dialectics of Nature, to the Hegelian doctrine that quantity can transform into quality: e.g. molecular motion “becomes” heat; the addition of molecules can change the nature of a chemical compound; and the addition of many workers together creates a “new power,” distinct from and greater than what the workers could do separately. But it’s absurd to say that this doctrine––whether for Engels or Hegel––makes quality into nothing but quantity. Saying “X transforms into Y” doesn’t reduce Y to X, nor does saying “Y depends on X” reduce Y to X.

Further, we must remember that, if quantity transforms into quality, the reverse also holds for Engels. Indeed, the first of Engels’s three “laws” of metaphysics, as he writes in Dialectics of Nature, is: “The law of the transformation of quantity into quality, and vice versa.” The mutual dependence of quality and quantity isn’t hard to grasp: every quantity––except, perhaps, in the case of pure numbers, which isn’t what Engels is talking about––is always a quantity of something and that something will have qualities of various kinds. (This also exemplifies his second law of metaphysics: “The law of the interpenetration of opposites.”)

So: it’s highly implausible that Engels reduces quality “simply” to quantity. And it’s also doubtful––and, like the Marx-Engels relationship generally, the subject of significant scholarly debate––whether the ideas in Engels’s “metaphysical” works can be ascribed to Marx. I think not, but we can leave this point aside.

Now, I’m not sure in what ways you think Marx badly misunderstands the common good (I’m willing to grant that he partly misunderstands it––hence the need for supplementation and revision, perhaps even at the level of (the specifics of) ontology), so I’ll leave that aside too. In any case, I have nothing but the highest respect for de Koninck’s work on the common good and I regard it as quite right. (Sadly, I think de Koninck profoundly misunderstood Marx––though he may well have understood so-called “Marxism,” which, especially in its Soviet form, is a perverse and stupid corruption of Marx’s thought.)

On to contradiction! It’s quite possible, I think, for contradictions to exist in reality. Even a Thomist could agree to this. The reason, again, is that Marx follows Hegel’s usage in speaking of “contradiction” in the sense that Aristotle would speak of “contrariety.” One may justifiably disagree with this terminology, of course, and it no doubt leads to confusion; but to understand Marx, we have to understand his (often murky) terminology.

(Unfortunately, Marx never got around to writing the short treatise on his use of “dialectic” that he was planning. Alas. I think the reason, however, that he, like Hegel, uses the term “contradiction” is because of its connotation of “mutual incompatibility.” But mutual incompatibility does not occur merely at the level of logic or metaphysics. There are, plausibly, more concrete types of incompatibility. For instance, given current atmospheric conditions, it is impossible for an insect to be, let’s suppose, 10 feet long; this is because, as insects get bigger, their respiratory systems take up a larger percentage of their bodies, until, at some point, there would be no more space left for any other organs. This is an example of what we might call a “physical” contradiction. Marx is interested in analogous types of contradictions that we might call “social.” Further, for Marx, capitalism is perverse in part because, in it, agents behave as if a misguided metaphysic were true: e.g. it is only through the sale of commodities on the market that the concrete labors of individuals become validated as socially useful, and hence those labors become treated as “abstract.” Thus, it’s sometimes the case that Marx is simply describing the as-if metaphysical weirdness of the “commodity world,” not propounding such weirdness himself. Moreover, the social world is susceptible of contradiction/tension in a way that the natural world is not; people e.g. can act upon incoherent beliefs and such beliefs can be embodied at a social level. Hence social things, like money, can have “immanent contradictions,” contradictions constitutive of the thing in question. But perhaps natural things can, too: recall Hegel on the flower and the bud. These natural contradictions, however, are more harmonious than social ones; e.g. the transition from bud to flower doesn’t provoke a “crisis” in the plant. Finally, form and matter can also be in “contradiction,” e.g. if I make a knife out of rubber. The matter is here unsuited to, and hence in contradiction with, the form; and this is because the matter isn’t prime matter, but matter that’s already in-formed in some way (what Hegel calls “content”), such that the rubber’s form clashes with the form of the knife.) But the point to grasp is that, in Marx’s sense, contradictions (e.g. of capitalism) are not logical contradictions: it’s not as though, under capitalism, something is both A and not-A at the same time and in the same respect. Marx’s contradictions are simply “tensions” that exist within capitalism.

For instance, he writes in Capital, Vol. II:

“Contradiction in the capitalist mode of production. The workers are important for the market as buyers of commodities. But as sellers of their commodity––labour-power––capitalist society has the tendency to restrict them to the minimum price.”

This is plainly no logical contradiction. In fact, Chesterton, in the “Outline of Sanity,” makes an identical point:

“Capitalism is contradictory as soon as it is complete; because it is dealing with the mass of men in two opposite ways at once. When most men are wage-earners, it is more and more difficult for most men to be customers. For, the capitalist is always trying to cut down what his servant demands, and in doing so is cutting down what his customer can spend.”

Are we, then, to regard Chesterton as a proponent of dark Hegelianism? Similar “contradictions” of this sort include: the fact that a commodity is essentially both a use-value and an exchange-value; that private property requires the state; that money enables private persons to acquire social power; the divergent interests of labor and capital; and so on. Again, none of these are contradictions in Aristotle’s sense. Rather, they are tensions that––because they are not consciously managed (though they may be, to a certain extent) and thus are left to the impersonal operation of the market––can turn into crises if the conditions are right.

Concerning motion: While it is true that Hegel, Engels, and many soi-disant “Marxists” (e.g. Mao) regard motion itself as essentially contradictory, I can’t find any instance where Marx himself says this. But in Chapter 3 of Capital, he does talk about the “contradiction” of a certain kind of motion:

“We saw in a former chapter that the exchange of commodities implies contradictory and mutually exclusive conditions. The further development of the commodity does not abolish these contradictions, but rather provides the form within which they have room to move. This is, in general, the way in which real contradictions are resolved. For instance, it is a contradiction to depict one body as constantly flying towards another and at the same time constantly flying away from it. The ellipse is a form of motion within which this contradiction is both realized and resolved.”

Here, however, the ellipse, though “contradictory,” is also that which resolves a contradiction. More generally, capitalism “resolves” its contradictions by moving them around (or by focusing on different aspects of the contradiction at various times). Insofar as, e.g. in the case of the ellipse, motion involves “contradictory” elements (flying away from X, flying towards X), it’s the particular form of motion that resolves these. Once again, this isn’t a contradiction in any strict logical sense or Aristotelian sense, but rather in the sense of a tension between prima facie (materially) incompatible properties.

This is also how Hegel’s doctrine that motion itself is contradictory must be understood. He writes in the Science of Logic:

“A thing only moves, not when it is at this instant here and at another instant there, but when it is at one and the same instant here and not there…[From this] it does not follow that that motion does not occur, but rather that motion is existent contradiction itself.”

(However, note that, while Hegel sometimes says [like here] that motion itself is contradictory, he elsewhere seems to indicate that motion is rather the result of contradictions in things: contradiction “is the root of all movement and vitality.”) The “contradiction” here is that it seems contradictory (or: strange, absurd, etc.) for something to be at one instant here and another instant there (although what exactly is contradictory about saying that X is here at T1 and there at T2?); this “contradiction” is expressed in/resolved by motion. But this isn’t a logical contradiction either.

The upshot is that, although it’s perhaps doubtful (I can’t find any explicit passages, anyway) that Marx thought of motion itself as contradictory, it would not be a metaphysical disaster if he did. This is because of the sense in which he, like Hegel, uses the term “contradiction.” In any case, I heartily agree with the Aristotelian-Thomistic account of motion that you’ve given.

The wickedness of capitalism doubtless makes it an easy target for criticism. But unfortunately most other critics of capitalism have much worse aim than Marx does. At any rate, Marx has much to teach us––especially we Aristotelians and Thomists. MacIntyre made this point last year, in his epilogue to What Happened in and to Moral Philosophy in the Twentieth Century?:

“What therefore neither [Marxists nor Thomists] took seriously was the thought that Marx’s narrative of how human beings had come to misconceive their own nature, relationships, and powers presupposed not one of the liberal post-Enlightenment conceptions of human nature but something much closer to Aristotle’s conception and, that is to say, something uncomfortably close to Aquinas’s. Yet, if this is so, dialogue between these very different voices is badly needed, dialogue that acknowledges the need of each to learn from the other and the depth of some of their disagreements. It is a dialogue that would draw upon the significant work already done on Marx’s often unrecognized Aristotelian commitments, most notably by Scott Meikle.”

This dialogue is needed for two reasons:

“First, both in philosophy and in everyday life the currently dominant conceptions of human nature and human agency disguise and mislead. They therefore need to be challenged and undermined by a philosophical critique that is able to draw upon both Thomism and Marxism. Second, we need a better characterization than we now have of the predicaments generated by the ethics, politics, and economics of advanced modernity, so that, for example, in our reflections on the role and function of money in our lives we learn to think in terms that are at once economic and moral, terms that enable us to integrate thoughts from Aristotle, Aquinas, and Marx––and also from Simmel, and others––into a single critique.”

Quite right.

STEPHANUS: Unlike you, I take Hegel at his word. He believes in actual contradiction. Why else go to so much trouble to reject the law of non-contradiction?

But I think if one uses contradiction so loosely as to include the fact that an insect has a determinate size, and that a rubber knife could exist but the material would be badly suited to the function of a knife (viz. cutting), that contradiction simply means tension, then one has to wonder why the term was used in the first place, and why so much ink was spilled over the theory initially?

Again, granting that Marx has some sort of essentialism–which is not nothing, mind you–I’m not really seeing that he is an Aristotelian.

But I’m heartened by the fact you agree with De Koninck’s critique of Marxism, you just think it doesn’t apply to Karl Marx himself–do I have you right there?

NICODEMUS: Of course, Stephanus, there is the real possibility that Marx just wasn’t as rigorous as he seemed he was being, which is not unbelievable given the blatantly rhetorical character of much of his writing.

STEPHANUS: Well, if I’m right (and I’m mostly following De Koninck) that Marxists and Engels are wrong for at least the reasons given, it would say something about the clarity and rigor of Marx if his followers, including the man with whom he collaborated most closely, all radically misunderstood him.

I mean it is possible, but at that point, what kind of teacher and writer is Marx?

CAROLUS: It’s unhelpful to appeal to “tak[ing] Hegel at his word” in regard to the principle of non-contradiction, since we want to know precisely what (non-) “contradiction” means for him. So yes, real contradictions exist for Hegel; the task is to understand what this can mean. The better way is to look at his philosophical practice, i.e. concrete examples and analyses of contradictions that he gives. That is what I was doing with his example of motion.

Why all the fuss about the principle of non-contradiction for Hegel, then? The main objection to it is that it affords only a static picture of things (or the principle is only used in a static way). For Hegel, in order to grasp the way in which things are constituted by certain differences/relations to other things (e.g. the organs of the body), something more than a mere identity/difference contrast is needed. More generally, it’s the static, abstract, one-sidedness of the principle of non-contradiction that Hegel rejects; what appear, from a static or abstract perspective, as “contradictions” are reconciled from a broader perspective, one that grasps the unity (often processual) of things. But Hegel exegesis isn’t really the point here.

A lot of what this discussion, so far, is really about is what it means to call someone an “Aristotelian.” Certainly, no one claims that Marx held identical views to Aristotle. Further, after his early years, Marx offered very few explicit remarks either on metaphysics or indeed on the philosophical foundations of his work generally; these must be gleaned from bits and pieces throughout his work (and, of course, his thought develops over time). Readings of Marx that focus on the Aristotelian aspects of his work do indeed employ “Aristotelian” in a thin sense: e.g. that things exist apart from us and have natures/causal powers that are knowable; that man is a political animal; that the good life is one of activity (for Marx, free purposive productive activity); that justice involves not bare equality, but rather equity, respecting the differences of individuals; that society must be thought of organically (not atomistically and not as the result of, say, a social contract); and so forth. Does this warrant calling Marx’s thought “Aristotelian”? Many, including me, think so. Others may disagree.

I agree with de Koninck’s work on the common good, i.e. insofar as he is expounding the truth about the common good according to Thomas. But what he says about Marx and Marxism, however, is of a mixed character. Some of it applies to Marx (e.g. Marx certainly was an atheist––though not in a philosophical sense, and neither he nor Engels advocated religious persecution––and, like Prometheus, perhaps hated “the pack of gods”; but he of course saw religion as a necessary balm that people used to assuage their alienation and had a greater respect for religion than for most “secularists” of his day (e.g. he told his wife that, if she needed her “metaphysical needs” satisfied, she should read the Hebrew prophets instead of attending her secular society meeting; sometimes he took his family to hear the sung Mass; etc.)), and with that I don’t have much quarrel. Some of it applies mainly to “Marxism,” i.e. Marx’s professed followers. But de Koninck offers a very Hegelian reading of Marx––one that relies heavily on Marx’s early works––and this I find implausible.

Why Marx was misunderstood––by Engels, but more so by “Marxists,” like Plekhanov, Kautsky, and Lenin––is a difficult question. Partly it’s because, at least in his later work, he is very reticent about his philosophical commitments; his comments on philosophical topics are scattered throughout his “scientific” work on political economy, and a lot of work is required to stitch these comments together into a “system.” The reason for his reticence is presumably because he thought philosophy was irrelevant to his practical and social-scientific pursuits: the working class didn’t need a treatise on metaphysics from him. (Also, Marx could hardly have expected that his work would, after his death, be turned into a set of dogmas that served as an entire worldview––although, indeed, already during his lifetime people were calling themselves “Marxists,” which led him to say, “All I know is that I’m not a Marxist.”) Further, a large part of the blame for the misunderstanding of Marx by so-called “Marxists” was the crude philosophical knowledge that many of them had (including Engels, who––unlike Marx, who had a doctorate in philosophy––was an autodidact philosopher, and who, having read all the main works of metaphysics in just a few months’ time, immediately proclaimed his “system” of dialectics). For instance, most Marxists seemed to think that, if Marx was not an idealist, then the only option was for him to be a “materialist,” and that a materialist just is a physicalist, such that “Marxism” explains everything in terms of “matter in motion.” Another part of the misunderstanding, at least as far as the establishment of e.g. the USSR was concerned, was also due to the fact that the Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844 and the German Ideology––writings which present a more “humanistic” aspect to Marx’s thought––were published only in the 1930’s; neither Lenin nor the other founders of the USSR had read those texts.

As for Engels, while he displayed a better grasp of Marx’s work than most later “Marxists” (especially in relation to Marx’s work on political economy, society, etc., though plausibly much less so in relation to metaphysics), he nevertheless both misunderstood Marx in certain ways and undeniably contributed to that misunderstanding in others. This was partially due to the fact that Volumes II and III of Capital were not completed by Marx, and Engels had to cobble them together from various scattered papers and fragments, resulting, often quite tendentiously, in various omissions and insertions of his own into the text. (An egregious example is, in Volume III, his comments that the object of Chapter 1 of Capital is “simple commodity production,” not capitalism. This has rightly received much criticism from commentators.) Partly, again, it was perhaps due to Engels’s lack of philosophical acumen. But it is also true that Marx at least was aware of what Engels was saying––even concerning metaphysics––and didn’t correct him. If he disagreed with Engels, why didn’t he say so? This is a hard question, and one can only speculate. Perhaps it was due to Marx’s friendship with Engels; or because Marx was financially dependent upon him; or because, after the 1840’s, Marx didn’t have much interest in matters of ontology, but was concerned with his work on political economy; or because he thought any metaphysical quarrel was irrelevant to the more important task of empowering the working class; or because he didn’t think that Engels’s metaphysical work would be taken seriously (as, alas, it was). (These ideas––and more on Marx’s alleged “materialism” and relation to Engels––are given in George Kline’s article, “The Myth of Marx’s Materialism.” MacIntyre (in “The Theses on Feuerbach”) put me onto Kline’s work, since he agrees with “George L. Kline’s thesis… that Marx did not have a materialist ontology.”)

CAEDMON: Carolus, you are right to point out that most of the discussion has revolved around establishing Marx’s essentialist credentials. But this is really just prologue, since were Marx’s thought impossible to reconcile with Thomism, we would be free to simply ignore him, and chastise his followers for their errors.

What we are ultimately interested in are true, sound principles of e.g. political economy, not simply that Marx can be viewed (perhaps obliquely) through a Thomist lens. What, then, would you say is the most profitable way for the Thomist to read Marx? To summarize what you’ve written above, what are the key deficiencies in his thought that need filling-in from Thomistic or Aristotelian sources, and what are the clearest ways in which Marx and later thinkers in his vein genuinely contribute to the Thomistic tradition?

CAROLUS: Of most usefulness to the Aristotelian or Thomist is Marx’s work on political economy, rather than that on more “philosophical” topics in particular. Much of what Marx says philosophically is, I believe, consonant with an “Aristotelian” approach, but I don’t think that he adds much new that is also philosophically useful. But what he writes on political economy is, I think, very profound and on the whole correct. Capital––and the Grundrisse and the three parts of Theories of Surplus-Value––demand careful reading. Much of what he says in these texts also doesn’t (or needn’t) depend, in any significant way, on Marx’s metaphysics (other than upon his view that things have essences that are knowable). The existence of “analytical” Marxism––although a departure, self-consciously so, from Marx himself––is a testament to this. What aspects of his work on political economy, however, are important, and to what extent these are “infected” by e.g. his atheism, would require a lot of work to spell out. I’ll hopefully do this at a future moment, when I have more time. But even if one disagrees with his interpretation of Marx, the works by Meikle that I posted point the way towards a more fruitful dialogue between Marxists and Aristotelians––towards how to make use of Marx’s thought if you’re an Aristotelian.

For now, here’s a good list of other works (articles and books) on Marx and Aristotle (most sympathetic, some critical):

  • Tony Burns, “Materialism in Ancient Greek Philosophy and in the Writings of the Young Marx”
  • Denys Turner, Marxism and Christianity
  • Terry Eagleton, Why Marx Was Right
  • Howard Engelskirchen, Capital as a Social Kind
  • Kathryn Dean, Capitalism, Citizenship and the Arts of Thinking: A Marxian-Aristotelian Linguistic Account
  • James Farr, “Marx’s Laws”
  • Georg Lukács, Ontology of Social Being, Vol. 3
  • Patrick Murray, “Marx’s ‘Truly Social’ Labour Theory of Value,” Parts I and II
  • Marcel Reding, Thomas von Aquin und Karl Marx [in German]
  • William Clare Roberts, “The Labors of Karl Marx: Tekhnê, Valorization, Revolution” (dissertation)*
  • G. E. M. de Ste. Croix, The Class Struggle in the Ancient Greek World
  • Vanessa Wills, “Marx and Morality” (dissertation)
  • and many other articles by Scott Meikle.

*This dissertation also sketches out the striking similarities between Capital, Vol. I, and Dante’s Inferno. We already knew, of course, that reading Capital is hell, but it’s also structured in analogous ways to Dante’s work (e.g. 33 cantos + 1 introductory one vs. 33 chapters of Capital), littered with allusions to Dante, and the subject-matter of the various parts corresponds roughly to the levels of hell. So Capital, intentionally or not, can be read as a kind of descent into the hell of capitalism.

The President-Elect

The following was published on 9 November 2016 by “Coëmgenus”. It has been republished on Tradistae not as a full endorsement of its ideas but to provide an archive of the Tradinista project.

Those who love the common good and long for a juster politics cannot celebrate the election of Donald Trump; one need not think very highly of the American people to believe him unworthy of standing as their head. When he has spoken coherently he has given the world reason to think he will rule on behalf of a single class; when he has rambled and shouted he has demonstrated a vicious and erratic character that executive power is unlikely to discipline or reform.

But we are Christians; we are forbidden to despair. What God sends us as chastisement we will endure, and what princes attempt against the common good we will resist. If Trumpism is a turn for the worse, it is not the first time America has gone astray: his racism, his casual misogyny, his exploitation of the weak are nothing new to Americans who have suffered these at the hands of their rulers and their bosses.

Trump puts himself forward as a protector of the working man, and as an enemy of legal abortion. His long career of chicanery gives us no confidence that he will honor these commitments, but those who have supported him in pursuit of these ends are mistaken, not evil, and if they become disappointed in Trump we hope the work of this Collective will provide them with clarity and guidance.

But Trump promises other things that admit of no defense. His contempt for women, his kindling of xenophobia, his cheerful calls for torture and brutality, and his assaults on the solidarity that should bind all Americans are a threat to our common life. All Christians, all people of good will should do what they can to oppose these.

Where voting will make a difference, vote; persuade those who are capable of persuasion. Much can and should be done, even within the bounds of liberalism, to oppose the worst of what Trump promises. But it is not in the interest of liberalism that we oppose him. Our struggle is beyond Trump toward the order of which he is the current avatar; it is not simply an unqualified President-Elect but an unjustifiable way of life that we condemn.

St. Marx and the Dragon

The following was published on 7 October 2016 by “Andrew Kuiper”. It has been republished on Tradistae not as a full endorsement of its ideas but to provide an archive of the Tradinista project.

1. The Name of the Beast

Without warning or fanfare, in the midst of his analysis of commodities and exchange in the second chapter of Capital, Marx inserts a block quote (in Latin) from the Apocalypse of John.

Illi unum consilium habent et virtutem et potestatem suam bestiae tradunt…Et ne quis possit emere aut vendere, nisi qui habet characterem aut nomen bestiae, aut numerum nominis eius

These have one mind, and shall give their power and strength unto the beast…And that no man might buy or sell, save that he had the mark, or the name of the beast, or the number of his name[1]

In other instances, when Marx makes use of literary references they tend to be short, to the point, and surrounded by explanation. The Much Ado About Nothing reference at the end of the first chapter, and the Faust reference that closely precedes the paragraph in question function as witty illustrations of his opponents’ poor habits of thought. For the Apocalypse citation, Marx stitches together two different passages and gives no explicit explanation for its use. The tone is not humorous and the relationship is not clear. Why would a self-proclaimed atheist-materialist desire to plunge his account of the formation of the money as a universal equivalent for exchange within the cosmic drama of the Evangelist?

There are at least three possibilities. One would be to cast Marx as a cynical rhetorician. He is appealing to a mythological framework to further the dramatic impact of his own historical-economic analysis. Perhaps he is afraid that the sociological nuts and bolts required his system does not provide sufficient kindling for revolution. A story of the final battle between the Messiah and the Ancient Dragon, however, is both recognizable per se and its attendant signs are easily transposed to other significations.

Another possibility could be that it has no deeper significance. Marx was both well-educated and widely read. Fowkes, a translator of Capital, notes “it is generally agreed that Marx was a master of literary German. A translation which overlooks this will not do justice to his vivid use of the language and the startling and strong images which abound in Capital[2]”. Sometimes a display of literary erudition is its own reward.

Thirdly, it could be that Marx used the Book of Revelation because he glimpsed a way to read the imagery of Biblical apocalyptic in an economic, political, and historical manner. I find this to be the most interesting possibility.

There is at least some indication that Marx was comfortable analyzing the operations (and apologists) of political economy in theological and religious terms. His remark about commodities as “abounding in metaphysical subtleties and theological niceties” may stand as a simple pejorative if taken singly. But, in conjunction with a few other passages, it seems to indicate an implicit aspect of his analysis.

He chastises the political economists who presumptively enshrine certain forms of labor and value as self-evident truths of human action which are imposed by necessity. To his mind, this is to treat previous forms of economic and social organization “in much the same way as the Fathers of the Church treated pre-Christian religion[3].” The footnote to this passage takes us to The Poverty of Philosophy where Marx makes a similar comparison about the naïve distinction between “natural” and “artificial” institutions. “In this they resemble the theologians, who likewise establish two kinds of religion. Every religion which is not theirs is an invention of men, while their own is an emanation of God…Thus there has been history, but there is no longer any[4].”

For Christians, this has a double significance. Negatively, it means that Marx considers theologians to be as naïve as political economists in elaborating doctrine. Positively, it means that Marx believes that political economy forces a caesura on the development of history by using a theological apparatus. And in locating the essence of political economy in the use of a particular commodity that can evaluate all other commodities, he identifies the (anti)messianic center of this aberrant theology: money.

The moment in Capital when Marx names money as the universal equivalent of exchange is also where he decides to juxtapose the passages penned by St. John. I think he intended us to take the similarities quite seriously. The terrifying unity of purpose with which the kings of the earth hand over their power to the beast matches the social action necessary to establish the monetary system. The mark of the beast dominates and drives all market-relations and bears a curious numerical quality which remains at the same time “a human number.” It is important to remember that the Beast from the Earth establishes images of the Beast from the Sea and rules by invoking his authority. For St. John, this bestial image would not be a true icon leading from the material to the divine, but a base idol, or fetish, the very word Marx uses to characterize this use of commodities.

Further evidence that Marx took his exegetical interlude seriously comes a little later. His comments on the material used for commodity-money continue to have religious overtones. “This physical object, gold or silver in its crude state, becomes, immediately on its emergence from the bowels of the earth, the direct incarnation of all human labor. Hence the magic of money…The riddle of the money fetish is therefore the riddle of the commodity fetish, now become visible and dazzling to our eyes[5].” Marx stresses the chthonic origin of money, as well as mentioning its strange desire to incarnate itself. Likewise, the Beast of the Earth emerges from the deep places and enacts his own demonic parody of the Incarnation. In his own historical-economic mode, Marx echoes the purpose of St. John, which is to lay bare the mystery of iniquity.

2. “And all is seared with trade”

For the Christian, then, what is the usefulness of this reading? The genre of apocalyptic, as others have stated, is not easily translated into the realms of history, politics, and economics. Notable exceptions like Joachim of Fiore remained largely in the background until the advent of liberation theology, and the resurgence of political theology[6]. At least one jumping off point is Marx’s account of commodity-fetishism. Aided by this conceptual framework, we can more easily identify how commercial empire of the Whore of Babylon sins against love of neighbor and love of God. Consider the song of the merchants after the devastation of Babylon:

And the merchants of the earth weep and mourn for her, since no one buys their cargo any more, cargo of gold, silver, jewels and pearls, fine linen, purple, silk and scarlet, all kinds of scented wood, all articles of ivory, all articles of costly wood, bronze, iron and marble, cinnamon, spice, incense, myrrh, frankincense, wine, oil, fine flour and wheat, cattle and sheep, horses and chariots, and slaves, that is, human souls[7].

Two things are worth noticing here. First, slaves are deliberately placed at the end of what is essentially a cargo manifest. Not only are human being categorized among lifeless commodities, they are at the end of the line. But St. John interrupts this lament over lost profits with a simple damning gloss: slaves are human souls. The image of God in man is in direct conflict with the logic of the profit-motive. The Evangelist tells us that worshipping the bestial fetish determines one’s ability to operate in the market-place. All the merchants have to do is deny the image of God in man and worship instead the image of the Beast, the image that Marx identifies as money. You cannot love your neighbor as yourself and treat human beings as subject to the laws of the market-place: like commodities.

Second, almost all of the items in the inventory are mentioned elsewhere in Scripture as either being material for building a dwelling of God (precious metals, stones, wood, fabrics), or for liturgical celebration in a temple (incense, sacrificial animals, bread and wine). In only pursuing exchange of materials for wealth, Babylon and her merchants denied any higher purpose for matter or the created order. They are an ignoble counterfeit of King David who demanded to pay the full price for the site of worship and the gifts because he would not give to the Lord that which cost him nothing. For them, nothing can be given to the worship of God because it has no value apart from cost. The metaphors of whoring and fornication drive home their exclusive mentality of pleasure and profit. Creation must wait for the sons of God to be released from its status as an exchange-fetish and revealed as a luminous sign of the divine and the material condition of the Heavenly Jerusalem.

3. Marxist Gold

Marx suffered more from what he was unable to say (because of his materialism and rejection of Christianity) than what he positively outlined in his critique of political economy. The eschatological destiny of mankind and Creation remained hidden (or at least obscure and distorted) for him. Instructed by divine revelation, we seek after the holy visions of prophets, apostles, and evangelists. We desire to understand all political, historical, and economic within the mystical and apocalyptic grammar that began in the Old Testament within the images of Daniel, Isaiah and Ezekiel. The Apocalypse of John gathers together all previous prophecies and apocalyptic in the final institution of the Heavenly Jerusalem and the Lamb of God. The liturgy, social teaching, and dogmas of the visible Church constitute a single narrative whole of restoring and transfiguring heaven and earth in all its aspects. The Church already proclaims the need for repentance and conversion to all nations in her teachings and in her liturgy. For the kingdom of heaven is among us. It would be inexcusable to separate out those parts of Holy Mother Church that speak authoritatively on political and economic matters as utopian. St. John has lifted the veil and confirmed the teachings of St. Paul that our warfare is not against flesh and blood but principalities and power, and the systems of this world.

Spiritual warfare in this cosmic drama is most decidedly not private warfare. The witness of the Church must be allowed to speak in its fullness or it risks fragmentation and incoherence. As commentators like Eugene McCarraher and David Bentley Hart have recently pointed out, Mammon is ascendant in the form of global capitalism and it desires the worship due to God alone. Marx’s critique of political economy is of great help in exposing this particularly subtle and elusive fetish. Still, like all philosophies, Marxism must be disciplined and subjected to the holy mysteries and authority of the Church. We make a war of intellectual conquest on all things in order to bring them to subjection under the rule of Christ. Augustine and many other Fathers tell us that the true purpose of the gold the Israelites took from the Egyptians was to adorn the tabernacle of the living God. The purpose of our plundering should be no different.


  1. Revelation 13:17; 17:13 
  2. Translator’s Preface to the Penguin Classics edition of Capital: Volume I 
  3. P.175 Capital Vol. 1.2 
  4. P.105 London, 1966 
  5. P.187 
  6. In particular, I would like to mention Oliver O’Donovan, both because he should be read by all and this essay is deeply indebted to his “The Political Thought of the Book of Revelation” which goes into far greater detail on these themes. 
  7. Revelation 18:11-13 

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.

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). 

A Catholic Socialism? Part 2

The following was published on 29 September 2016 by “C.W. Strand” as the second essay in a three-part series on the possibility and nature of Catholic socialism. Part I can be found here and Part III here. It has been republished on Tradistae not as a full endorsement of its ideas but to provide an archive of the Tradinista project.

In Part I, we examined the popes’ condemnations of “socialism” in several key encyclicals and saw that they conceive of socialism as marked by some or all of ten different features, none of which in fact need be present under socialism according to our definition. That definition attempted to capture what is common to the various senses of socialism, from that of Proudhon to Lenin, resulting in a formulation inspired by Karl Polanyi: “socialism” refers to a society which, transcending the self-regulating market, subordinates a significant part of it to communal control.

The popes, however, offer not merely negative rejections of “socialism,” but also positive articulations of moral principles that should inform a just society; and it might be wondered whether, even if our definition of socialism escapes the popes’ explicit condemnations, it is nevertheless out of tune with the moral principles that they have outlined.

In what follows, therefore, we will list and comment upon eighteen salient principles expressed in various encyclicals – a list by no means exhaustive of all the principles contained in these encyclicals, but merely containing some of those most relevant to the question of socialism. While some of these principles will be obviously compatible with socialism, some may appear less so prima facie; but we will see that even these latter are in fact consistent with socialism, both in its generic definition and in some of its concrete forms.

Socialism and some papal principles

  1. Universal destination of goods. There is a “universal destination” of goods prior to private property (Centesimus annus, ¶6). Since the goods of the earth were given by God to humanity in general, the claims of humanity (and of the common good) can, under certain conditions, override the claims of individual property rights. Of course, a specification of these conditions is a trickier matter, but the general principle holds true, and it is obvious how this principle is maintained under socialism.
  2. Natural, but not absolute, right to property. The right to property, while “natural,” is not absolute (Rerum novarum, ¶15; Centesimus annus, ¶6). Although one may wish to shy away from talk of “natural rights,” socialism is nevertheless consistent with an affirmation of the natural (but not absolute) right to private property. Some socialists, it is true, do indeed deny this principle, but there is no reason why a socialist must of necessity do so. For socialism need not involve the total abolition of private property, but only (i) the abolition of some kinds of private property (e.g. large-scale productive property) or (ii) the abolition of certain uses of some kinds of property – or both. The socialist, then, can be happy to affirm the right to property in the case of non-productive property (toothbrushes, shoes, etc.) and in that of some productive property (e.g. small-scale).
  3. The law should favor maximally-distributed private ownership. “The law, therefore, should favor ownership, and its policy should be to induce as many as possible of the people to become owners” (Rerum novarum, ¶46). As the context suggests, Leo presumably has in mind productive property here. With this ideal, a socialist need find nothing objectionable; but two points should be noted. First, from the idea that all people should privately own productive property, it does not follow that all productive property should be privately owned. For everyone to have their own small enterprise would be a wonderful thing; but there is nevertheless a need for some kinds of production to be non-privately owned. Second, supposing (probably falsely) that Leo instead means that “all productive property should be privately owned,” everything hinges on how we understand what he means by “possible.” For this principle must be taken in concert with others, such as that “collective goods” should be safeguarded (see [4] below); and it is possible to argue, in this case, that such collective goods can be safeguarded only by means of a certain degree of “socialized” industry.
  4. The state should control some kinds of property. “[C]ertain kinds of property…ought to be reserved to the State” (Quadragesimo anno, ¶114). (The reason, Pius says, is that such kinds of property have a “dominating” power that no individual should possess.) Similarly, there are “goods which by their very nature cannot and must not be bought or sold,” and it “is the task of the State to provide for the defence and preservation of common goods such as the natural and human environments, which cannot be safeguarded simply by market forces…[T]he State and all of society have the duty of defending those collective goods which, among others, constitute the essential framework for the legitimate pursuit of personal goals on the part of each individual” (Centesimus annus, ¶40). This point is strongly affirmed by a socialist. What remains to be determined is the nature of those “common” or “collective” goods that constitute the “essential framework” of a free society – a determination that will largely depend upon our concrete analyses of the nature of capitalism, its logic and tendencies, etc.Such state ownership as exists must be truly “socialized,” as John Paul says, and that occurs “only when the subject character of society is ensured, that is to say, when on the basis of his work each person is fully entitled to consider himself a part-owner of the great workbench at which he is working with everyone else” (Laborem exercens, ¶14). A bloated bureaucracy like the Soviet Union, with the entire economy planned centrally without the input of ordinary workers, is therefore to be rejected. The state must be transparent and accountable to people, who in turn must have a genuine say in how state-owned productive property is used. All of this involves a radical decentralization of power and a form of government quite different from that of the modern nation-state.
  5. The state should safeguard equality in exchange. Another task of the state is “safeguarding the prerequisites of a free economy, which presumes a certain equality between the parties, such that one party would not be so powerful as practically to reduce the other to subservience” (Centesimus annus, ¶15). This principle is quite consonant with socialism; but again, which practical policies follow from it depend largely upon our concrete assessments of capitalism. A socialist might say, for instance, that so long as there is a large class of persons without any means of production and who are therefore economically compelled to sell their labor-power to persons who do own means of production, then there is no “equality” between the parties – so that the way to embody this principle would be to furnish everyone with the basic necessities of life (and, perhaps, access to means of production of their own), thereby eliminating their compulsion to sell their labor-power.
  6. Taxation should not be unfair. Taxation should not be so severe as “to deprive the private owner of more than is fair” (Rerum novarum, ¶47). This is correct, and a socialist can agree. But everything hinges upon how we understand what is “fair.” This requires concrete judgment and depends upon one’s particular view of social reality.
  7. Humans are owed something by virtue of their humanity. “[P]rior to the logic of a fair exchange of goods and the forms of justice appropriate to it, there exists something which is due to man because he is man, by reason of his lofty dignity. Inseparable from that required ‘something’ is the possibility to survive and, at the same time, to make an active contribution to the common good of humanity” (Centesimus annus, ¶34). Here a socialist will agree: certain basic goods (material and non-material) are due to people simply because they are people – not because they are functioning as “productive” members of society. Such basic goods include the ability to contribute to, and participate in, the common good.
  8. Charity is no substitute for justice. “[N]o vicarious charity can substitute for justice which is due as an obligation and is wrongfully denied” (Quadragesimo anno, ¶137). While “charity” is an excellent thing (and commanded by God), it cannot replace justice. Justice is, in fact, more foundational, and one cannot leave to charity what belongs to people by justice. It is evident how this principle coheres with socialism; what is left to be specified is what, precisely, people are due in justice, and how best to enact such justice.
  9. Profit-making can be legitimate. There is a “legitimate role of profit” (Centesimus annus, ¶35) and so profit-making is not intrinsically wicked. Taken abstractly, this principle is true, and a socialist has no need to disagree with it. But the problems with capitalism emerge once we discard this abstract view and look at things more concretely: while fine in themselves, profits become bad (or intimately linked to [moral and non-moral] ills) when they systematically encourage pleonexia or acquisitiveness, turn workers into ever more perfect instruments of capital, are used to exert political domination, justify low wages to workers who are economically compelled to accept them, and so on. When we analyze the ills of profit-making in capitalism, we are viewing profits not in isolation, but rather as they are concretely integrated in a network of vicious activities. Here profit serves not as a mere aspect or result of production, but rather as its guiding aim – an aim that subordinates all else to itself.
  10. Hiring or being hired is not intrinsically unjust. Pius denies that “a contract of hiring and being hired is unjust of its own nature” (Quadragesimo anno, ¶64). As in the case of profit-making, a socialist can also agree that a contract of hiring is fine, taken abstractly, but that the matter is once again different when we move to a concrete level. For instance, by and large, those hired are productive-property-less workers who often enter into labor contracts under duress – at least because one typically has no genuine “choice” to be a worker and the capitalist system is predicated on there being a mass of such property-less persons. Even if one thinks that there is nothing intrinsically immoral with a contract of hiring under such circumstances (and a socialist need not think so), contracts of hiring are nevertheless causes and effects of – and are closely bound up with – many social evils like those mentioned in the preceding point.Contrast the case of a capitalist hiring a worker with that of someone paying a kid down the street to mow one’s lawn. In the former case, the worker’s livelihood is market-dependent, and this means that he is economically compelled to sell his labor-power, accept low wages, etc.; in the latter case, the kid’s livelihood is not market-dependent (but rather parent-dependent) and his lawn-mowing is motivated simply by the desire to get some money to purchase things that he wants. A “contract of hiring” in this latter case is certainly not unjust; but in the former case it may be, and so long as the system of wage-labor still exists, we agree with Pius that, “so far as is possible, the work-contract [should] be somewhat modified by a partnership-contract” (Quadragesimo anno, ¶65).1 (However, even if we regarded every particular “contract of hiring” under capitalism to be just, a general structural injustice would still remain – the injustice that one must sell one’s labor-power to some capitalist.)
  11. Labor should not and cannot be a commodity. Labor “cannot be bought and sold like a commodity,” writes Pius (Quadragesimo anno, ¶83). A socialist will concur with this, and also with Pius’s suggestion that guilds could be a good way of achieving the aims of this principle. Nevertheless, this principle can be fully embodied only in socialism, since labor is bought and sold like a commodity (even if a “fictitious” one) because workers’ livelihood is market-dependent. If, as under socialism, the state were to provide citizens with the basic goods and services necessary for life, the economic compulsion to sell one’s labor would cease. Insofar as livelihood remains bound to the market, labor will continue to be commodified.
  12. The results of labor belong to the laborer. “[T]he results of labor should belong to those who have bestowed their labor” (Rerum novarum, ¶10). This is a principle that a socialist can likewise affirm, although he might wish to add: “…in proportion to the labor bestowed.” But three points should be made. First, this principle is not absolute, or else taxation would be immoral. Second, Leo does not seem to contemplate that this principle might in fact undercut capitalism, precisely because it is highly dubious that capitalists’ profits are the (proportional) “results of [their] labor”; profits are also very much the consequence of the greater power of capitalists over workers. Third, we must temper our adherence to this principle with what Pius says in a different context: “the Apostle in no wise teaches that labor is the sole title to a living or an income” (Quadragesimo anno, ¶57), and so a socialist society must certainly provide materially for those who are unable to work.
  13. The product cannot be ascribed to labor or capital alone. “Leo XIII… wrote: ‘Neither capital can do without labor, not labor without capital.’ Wherefore it is wholly false to ascribe to property alone or to labor alone whatever has been obtained through the combined effort of both, and it is wholly unjust for either, denying the efficacy of the other, to arrogate to itself whatever has been produced” (Quadragesimo anno, ¶53). Once more, this principle – that “whatever has been produced” should not be ascribed either to labor or to capital alone – is certainly compatible with socialism. A socialist can grant not only that the value of the product is justly (if partly) due to capital, but also that, since the capitalist was in some sense responsible for the product being produced, he may get a share of the profit – enough to live on, but not an exorbitant amount. In any case, this principle primarily concerns capitalism, not socialism – which would in fact abolish capitalists qua capitalists (though not, of course, qua human beings).2
  14. Economic life should not be based on free competition. “Just as the unity of human society cannot be founded on an opposition of classes, so also the right ordering of economic life cannot be left to a free competition of forces” (Quadragesimo anno, ¶88). This certainly is consonant with socialism – not merely the second clause, but also the first. For a central socialist criticism of capitalism is that it is founded upon the opposition of classes, and so must be abolished; and by doing away with classes, we do away with the opposition between them.By “classes,” we mean, roughly, non-state groups of persons identified by their roles in how the surplus-labor of society is coercively appropriated and allocated – whether through forms of dependence that are “personal,” as in a slave economy, or through those that are “impersonal,” as in capitalism. Classes in this sense should be abolished. But if we take classes in the sense of mere social strata, then we can agree that these should be harmonized as much as possible, while recognizing that conflict between social strata – based on ethnicity, religion, etc. – will persist. Such conflicts are inevitable in any society (which is part of the reason why law will still have to exist under socialism), but we should nevertheless strive to ameliorate them.
  15. Cooperation should replace class conflict. The “State and every good citizen ought to look to and strive towards this end: that the conflict between the hostile classes be abolished and harmonious cooperation of the Industries and Professions be encouraged and promoted” (Quadragesimo anno, ¶81). Further, the opposition between capitalists and workers must be “abolished and well-ordered members of the social body – Industries and Professions – [must be] constituted in which men may have their place, not according to the position that each has in the labor market but according to the respective social functions which each performs” (Quadragesimo anno, ¶83). Agreeing with this, a socialist would nevertheless make four points.First, that classes should be “harmonized” does not mean that one cannot also seek to do away with them. If we are to follow St. Paul, for instance, masters and slaves should live in harmony, but that does not mean that we cannot or should not seek to abolish slavery. Second, the abolition of “class conflict” will not occur – unless by some miracle – until classes themselves are abolished, which in turn involves abolishing capitalism. Third, this elimination of classes will require the abolition of the state in its current form, which functions de facto (and perhaps de jure) as an instrument of capitalist power. Finally, only under socialism (or at least not under capitalism) would the “place” of each member of the social body be determined not by the market but by “social functions.” Markets may and should certainly exist in a socialist society, but one’s livelihood would no longer be market-dependent.
  16. Subsidiarity. The principle of subsidiarity states: “Just as it is gravely wrong to take from individuals what they can accomplish by their own initiative and industry and give it to the community, so also it is an injustice and at the same time a grave evil and disturbance of right order to assign to a greater and higher association what lesser and subordinate organizations can do. For every social activity ought of its own nature to furnish help to the members of the body social, and never destroy and absorb them” (Quadragesimo anno, ¶79). So, Pius concludes, “[t]he supreme authority of the State ought, therefore, to let subordinate groups handle matters and concerns of lesser importance, which would otherwise dissipate its efforts greatly. Thereby the State will more freely, powerfully, and effectively do all those things that belong to it alone because it alone can do them: directing, watching, urging, restraining, as occasion requires and necessity demands” (¶80).Socialists can strongly uphold the principle of subsidiarity, but a few clarifications must be made. First, the principle is not tantamount to “localism is good,” but rather means that, if some lower level can perform some function, then it ought to; and if not, then a higher level may be justified in performing it. Second, Pius seems to assume that it is matters of “lesser importance” that are left to lower levels; more socially-important functions should be carried out by the state. Third, subsidiarity is violated only if the state takes away from individuals a function that they themselves could perform (an interpretation confirmed by Centesimus annus, ¶48). So, if the state were, for instance, to produce food sufficient for all citizens to live on, that would not violate the principle of subsidiarity if the state also allowed individuals to grow their own food; assigning a function to a higher level is condemned only if it involves taking away that function from lower levels.3 In any case, of course, the application of the principle of subsidiarity requires a concrete appraisal of a given social situation – to determine which functions need to be performed, whether a lower level is capable of performing them, whether these functions are of “lesser importance,” and so on.So a socialist, affirming the demands of subsidiarity (and solidarity), can also firmly agree with John Paul when he writes that there ought to be a variety of intermediary associations between the individual and the state: “society, the family, religious groups,” etc., “all of which enjoy their own spheres of autonomy and sovereignty” (Centesimus annus, ¶45). While socialisms of the past have indeed attempted to submerge these associations in the state, there is no reason why socialism as such should do so. Many forms of socialism – like guild socialism or mutualism – leave plenty of room for intermediary associations of this sort.
  17. Creative initiative is good. “Creative human work,” “initiative,” and “entrepreneurial ability” are all good and noble things (Centesimus annus, ¶32). Although recognizing the truth of this point, a socialist would urge that capitalism in fact encourages initiative only for the few people who become productive property owners, consigning the mass of workers to fairly mechanical obedience to bosses. “Private property” or “business” or “the market” may promote individual initiative, but those are not features unique to capitalism, and the capitalist arrangement of private property, business, and the market very often squashes such initiative, creativity, and entrepreneurialism. Socialism could better achieve those ideals, by providing the framework – and the material (and non-material) conditions – for their realization.
  18. Work should be free, personal, and participatory. We should “struggle against an economic system… [which] uphold[s] the absolute predominance of capital, the possession of the means of production and of the land, in contrast to the free and personal nature of human work”; and, in place of such a system, we should establish “a society of free work, of enterprise and of participation” (Centesimus annus, ¶35). A socialist should be in profound agreement here. What a socialist fundamentally objects to is not capital or private ownership of means of production or of land in themselves, but rather the ways in which these are used to dominate and exploit others; he rejects the “predominance” of these things. But, crucially, such a socialist will contend that the predominance of capital and private property cannot be abolished unless capitalism as a system is also abolished. What would be instituted in place of capitalism? “A society of free work, of enterprise and of participation” – recognizing “the free and personal nature of human work” – could sum up socialism nicely.


As an economic system, socialism may be justified on any number of grounds, some consistent and some inconsistent with the Catholic faith. The foregoing considerations have indicated the lines along which socialism could be, at the level of moral principles, harmonious with the faith. We can see, then, that socialism in our generic, Polanyi-inspired definition not only escapes the popes’ condemnations of “socialism,” but also coheres with the positive principles that they articulate in their encyclicals.

Any existing form of socialism, however, will have to give concrete content to that generic definition of socialism. Which parts of the economy will be subject to communal control? How will it be controlled? What mixture of private and non-private property will there be? Questions like these need answering. While we have already sketched out some answers to them in this and the previous essay, what remains is to provide a fuller outline of what a Catholic socialism might look like. This will be our task in Part III.


  1. We also agree with Pius in denying that “labor is worth and must be paid as much as its products are worth” (Quadragesimo anno, ¶68), at the very least because the value of the product is due both to labor and capital – or, in Marxian terms, “living” labor and “dead” labor.
  2. This and the preceding principle are reconcilable because, while the results of labor belong to the laborer, the product is not wholly the result workers’ “living” labor.
  3. In this case, however, the functions are in fact distinct. The state provides food security for its citizenry, while individuals provide food for themselves. These are different functions, although at an abstract level – “providing food” – we may regard them as the same.

A Catholic Socialism? Part I

The following was published on 28 September 2016 by “C.W. Strand” as the first essay in a three-part series on the possibility and nature of Catholic socialism. Part II can be found here and Part III here. It has been republished on Tradistae not as a full endorsement of its ideas but to provide an archive of the Tradinista project.

May a Catholic be a socialist? For many Catholics, the answer to this question is firmly negative. What could be clearer, after all, than Pope Pius XI’s statement, in Quadragesimo anno, that “no one can be at the same time a good Catholic and a true socialist”? With similar sentiments populating other encyclicals, the Catholic case against socialism might seem definitively closed. But this is not so – for what the popes mean by “socialism” is not always what socialists mean by “socialism.” “Socialism,” in fact, possesses a variety of senses, and only some of those senses fall under the condemnations of “socialism” articulated in papal encyclicals. From this it follows that a Catholic may indeed be a socialist – but only of the sort not condemned by the popes.

The meaning(s) of “socialism”

Historically, “socialism” has borne a wide range of meanings – from the decentralized ideals of Proudhon or Kropotkin, to the worker-managed guild system of G.D.H. Cole and other “associational socialists” like Otto Neurath, to the centralized bureaucracy of the Soviet Union. Equally broad, too, are the senses of “socialism” today: libertarian socialism, Scandinavian democratic socialism, and so on. The meanings of “socialism” are therefore quite diverse, lying on a continuum from near anarchism at one end to totalitarianism at the other.

Within this semantic diversity, however, can a central meaning be discerned – some generic definition that unites the various senses? Several definitions could perhaps be offered, but a modified version of that given by Karl Polanyi will suffice for our purposes here. On this view, “socialism” refers to an economic system which, transcending the self-regulating market, subordinates a significant part of it to communal control.1

Several points about this definition should be noted. Socialism, first of all, is here distinguished from capitalism not primarily by property relations, but rather by how economic life is regulated – by means of a more-or-less autonomous market or by the community. All that follows from our definition is that property rights are not absolute. Second, the nature of this “communal control” is likewise quite open-ended, from worker councils in a stateless society to a highly centralized nation-state. This definition, third, implies nothing about the existence of markets, but only about the absence of self-regulating markets in relation to significant parts of social life. Hence socialism can certainly include markets, but only markets that are put in their proper place. Left unspecified is also the nature of this “subordination,” which could entail regulation by either a bureaucratic state, direct democracy, or a loose confederation of workers’ cooperatives; and such regulation could be either formal (setting limits to the market) or substantive (such as in central planning). Finally, this definition conceives of socialism only as an economic system, not as a comprehensive philosophy.

To round off this discussion of definitional matters, “capitalism,” as we will be employing the term, refers to an economic system in which, by and large, one class of persons, lacking means of production, sell their labor-power to another class of persons who possess means of production. So capitalism is not merely a “market economy,” but rather one characterized by a particular, dominant social relation – that between capital and wage-labor.

Papal criticisms of “socialism”

With our generic definition of “socialism” outlined, we can now examine the nature of the “socialism” discussed and criticized in several papal encyclicals. In looking at the statements by the popes, we will be drawing primarily upon Leo XIII’s Quod apostolici muneris (1878) and Rerum novarum (1891), Pius XI’s Quadragesimo anno (1931), and John Paul II’s Centesimus annus (1991).

“Socialism,” in these encyclicals, is characterized by the presence of some or all of ten broad features, and our approach here will be to enumerate and comment upon each of them. From this discussion, it will emerge that none of these features need be present in socialism according to the generic, Polanyi-inspired definition given earlier. (Note that, when we refer to “socialism” or “socialist” as such below, that generic definition will be employed.)

A preliminary methodological note is in order. In our discussion, we will be assuming that papal encyclicals – as far as faith, morals, and matters closely related are concerned – are strongly binding and authoritative, that what they teach must be believed by Catholics. The reality is slightly more complicated – in truth, encyclicals must be read in the light of Tradition – but we will assume this stringent view for the sake of argument. Let us now turn to the ten features that the popes attribute to “socialism.”

  1. Rejection of authority. In Quod apostolici muneris, Leo writes that socialists (or “communists” or “nihilists”) “refuse obedience to higher powers” (¶1). But there is nothing intrinsic to socialism that leads to a rejection of all authority. One can advocate for socialism while yet obeying authority, whether secular or religious: the former, because one can strive to implement socialism through social and legal reform, rather than by violent revolution; the latter, because one can certainly be a socialist and a faithful Catholic. (The truth of this claim, however, will fully emerge only in the course of this article – and in Parts II and III.) Unjust authorities, of course, may be disobeyed – for sufficiently serious reasons – but that, too, is something consonant with the faith. Nothing about the nature of authority, in any case, is implied by our generic definition of socialism.
  2. Absolute equality. Socialists, according to Leo in Quod apostolici muneris, “proclaim the absolute quality of men in rights and duties” (¶1) and hold that “nature has made all men equal, and that, therefore, neither honor nor respect is due to majesty, nor obedience to laws, unless, perhaps, to those sanctioned by their good pleasure” (¶5). In Rerum novarum, Leo stresses this point again, writing that socialists attempt “to reduce civil society to one dead level,” a uniform equality that ignores “manifold differences of the most important kind; people differ in capacity skill, health, strength; and unequal fortune is a necessary result of unequal condition” – an inequality that is “far from being disadvantageous either to individuals or to the community” (¶17).A few points here merit response. No socialist, first of all, must believe that “majesty” deserves no honor or respect (socialism is certainly compatible in principle with monarchy, for instance), or that laws should be obeyed only if one consents to them. Further, as for all men being made “equal,” a socialist can instead accept the Christian understanding of equality that Leo delineates: “all, having inherited the same nature, are called to the same most high dignity of the sons of God, and…as one and the same end is set before all, each one is to be judged by the same law and will receive punishment or reward according to his deserts. The inequality of rights and of power proceeds from the very Author of nature” (Quod apostolici muneris, ¶5). Inequality as such should not be condemned, but rather inequalities that are unjustly caused and that are injurious to the common good.So socialism, finally, need not reduce all individuals to some “dead level” of equality, ignoring the crucial contributions made by the natural inequalities of people. This is true first of all because socialism can allow for a great amount of individual initiative, in which the varying talents and capacities of individuals can be expressed. (The state, for instance, could provide for basic needs like healthcare, housing, or food security, leaving individuals free to start their own productive enterprises on the market, now liberated from the threat of destitution.) Moreover, socialism need not embody an abstract or uniform conception of justice, but rather one that is attentive to natural (not unjust!) inequalities. Socialism might reflect that non-bourgeois conception of “right” (akin to Aristotle’s geometrical or proportional equality, i.e. “equity”) articulated by Marx in the Critique of the Gotha Program.2


  3. Debasement of marriage and the family. Leo maintains that socialism “debase[s] the natural union of man and woman” (Quod apostolici muneris, ¶1), “exercis[ing] intimate control over the family and the household…setting aside the parent and setting up a State supervision” (Rerum novarum, ¶14). On the contrary, while some socialists have, historically, been hostile to marriage and the family, nothing in socialism itself mandates that hostility. Certain socialists may reject marriage because they see it, falsely, as a form of domination in which a husband “owns” his wife, or as something inescapably bourgeois; but to see marriage in that way requires additional assumptions that go beyond the narrow limits of the definition of socialism that we gave earlier. Socialism, in that generic sense, concerns economic relations, not marital ones, and so it is certainly possible to be a socialist while subscribing to the Church’s teachings on marriage and the family.
  4. Denial of a right to/abolition of private property. Of the socialists, Leo writes in Quod apostolici muneris that they “assail the right to property sanctioned by natural law” (¶1) and “would destroy the ‘right’ of property, alleging it to be a human invention altogether opposed to the inborn equality of man” (¶9). Writing of “socialism as a State system – what would later be called ‘Real Socialism,’” John Paul similarly mentions socialism’s “opposition to private property” in Centesimus annus (¶13). But however opposed some socialist regimes have been to private property, socialism as such does not require the denial of a right to or the abolition of private property. Even if one believes that there ought to be some kinds of public or common property (say, collective ownership of large-scale means of production), that is perfectly compatible with a belief in a general right to private property, both (small-scale) means of production and means of consumption. To say, for instance, that healthcare – or education, transportation, etc. – should be run by the state does not abolish private property in general, nor does it deny a right to it.Socialists need not oppose private ownership as such, but only, as Pius says, the “kind of sovereignty over society which [some forms of] ownership [have], contrary to all right, seized and usurped” (Quadragesimo anno, ¶114). Here, some form of “expropriation” may be necessary, but it should be as minimal as possible and always aimed at the common good. Total expropriation of the wealthy would be unjust. Such non-total expropriation may be justified, because the right to private property is not absolute. As Paul VI writes in Populorum progressio, “the right to private property is not absolute and unconditional” (¶23), and so if, for instance, “certain landed estates…are detrimental to the interests of the country, the common good sometimes demands their expropriation” (¶24). Any such expropriation, of course, should be done as peacefully as possible.
  5. Common ownership of all property. Socialists, says Leo, “strive to seize and hold in common whatever has been acquired either by title of lawful inheritance, or by labor of brain and hands, or by thrift in one’s mode of life” (Quod apostolici muneris, ¶1) and are “endeavoring to transfer the possessions of individuals to the community at large” (Rerum novarum, ¶5). Hence the “main tenet of socialism” is “the community of goods” (Rerum novarum, ¶15). Yet a socialist is not obliged to believe in the common ownership of all property, but might instead believe only that some property should be communally owned, leaving other sorts to be owned privately. To say that some types of property should be communally owned, however, does not run afoul of the popes’ teachings. Indeed, Pius comments in Quadragesimo anno that “certain kinds of property, it is rightly contended, ought to be reserved to the State since they carry with them a dominating power so great that cannot without danger to the general welfare be entrusted to private individuals” (¶114). Common ownership, moreover, can take many forms – from property owned and managed by worker cooperatives or by the state, to common lands over which individuals can have use-rights.
  6. Violent class struggle unconstrained by ethics or law. The socialists “argue that poverty should not be peaceably endured,” writes Leo (Quod apostolici muneris, ¶9), and John Paul, speaking of “Real Socialism,” condemns the socialists’ “means of action” – a “class struggle…not constrained by ethical or juridical considerations, or respect for the dignity of others” (Centesimus annus, ¶14). While “Real Socialism” (e.g. the Soviet Union) did indeed involve “class struggle” in the sense rejected by John Paul and Leo, socialism as such need not involve it. Socialism, as we have defined it, implies nothing about the particular means used to realize it. One can therefore struggle for socialism – “struggle for social justice,” as John Paul mentions – while emphasizing that that struggle must be guided by ethical and juridical (and religious) norms; that it must respect human dignity; that it must truly aim at the common good and not at partisan interest; and that it must not entail “total war” and all its attendant ills. If armed resistance does occur, it must first meet the conditions specified by the Catechism of the Catholic Church (2243).
  7. Envy of the rich. In Rerum novarum, Leo criticizes the socialists for “working on the poor man’s envy of the rich” (¶4). Now, to be sure, this perhaps describes certain strands of socialist thought, as well as tactics employed by actual socialist regimes of the last century. But there is no necessary connection between socialism and envy. Advocacy for socialism may just as well be motivated by opposition to the injustices perpetrated by capitalism, by the desire for a more humane economic system, or by any number of other considerations.
  8. Society as existing only for “material advantage.” This alleged feature of socialism is articulated most clearly by Pius in Quadragesimo anno. While noting that socialism may be modified so as to become largely consistent with the faith, Pius writes that “Socialism, if it remains truly Socialism,” nevertheless has a “concept of society [that] is utterly foreign to the Christian truth” (¶117). What is this misguided view of society? Pius tells us: “Socialism…wholly ignoring and indifferent to this sublime end of both man and society, affirms that human association has been instituted for the sake of material advantage alone” (¶118), with the result that “the higher goods of man, liberty not excepted, must take a second place and even be sacrificed to the demands of the most efficient production of goods,” typically by means of an “excessive use of force” (¶119). In conclusion, Pius proclaims that “[r]eligious socialism, Christian socialism, are contradictory terms; no one can be at the same time a good Catholic and a true socialist” (¶120).Now, if we accept Pius’s understanding of socialism as involving a merely materially-focused society, then to be “true” to socialism is indeed contrary to the Catholic faith. (In that case, we ought to become untrue socialists.) But there is no reason why we should accept this understanding of socialism, for nothing in socialism as such entails seeing society as existing only for “material advantage.” It is certainly possible to justify socialism solely on the grounds that it would lead to a greater abundance of material goods, but nothing need compel a socialist to accept that justification, and indeed a great many socialist thinkers, including Marx, have not adopted the materialistic view of society that Pius condemns.3In fact, one of the key reasons for favoring socialism is that, by releasing society from the structural compulsion to compete and make a profit, an increase in free time thereby becomes possible, and the point of such free time is that it enables one to pursue more fully those “higher goods” that Pius speaks of – especially the contemplation of God. A socialist society can and should aim not only to provide citizens with sufficient material goods, but also to promote virtue and the Catholic faith among its citizens, with God rightly recognized as the “sublime end of man and society.” True liberty, too – which of course is not mere license, but is rather always the liberty to pursue the good – could likewise be present under socialism, which would seek to encourage the development of creative abilities, instill virtue, and ensure that individuals possess the basic material and non-material goods that are the preconditions for virtue.
  9. Man as only a molecule in the social organism. John Paul lays this charge against socialism in Centesimus annus, and it is worth quoting him at length (¶13):

    Socialism considers the individual person simply as an element, a molecule within the social organism, so that the good of the individual is completely subordinated to the functioning of the socio-economic mechanism. Socialism likewise maintains that the good of the individual can be realized without reference to his free choice…Man is thus reduced to a series of social relationships, and the concept of the person as the autonomous subject of moral decision disappears…From this mistaken conception of the person there arise both a distortion of law, which defines the sphere of the exercise of freedom, and an opposition to private property. A person who is deprived of something he can call “his own”, and the possibility of earning a living through his own initiative, comes to depend on the social machine and on those who control it. This makes it much more difficult for him to recognize his dignity as a person, and hinders progress towards the building up of an authentic human community.

    John Paul contrasts this false view of man and society with the Christian one, according to which “the social nature of man is not completely fulfilled in the State, but is realized in various intermediary groups…always with a view to the common good” (¶13).

    Plainly, it is true that, if socialism were to rely on the faulty view of man and society that John Paul ascribes to it, it would be fundamentally in error. While this mistaken view certainly characterized “Real Socialism,” it does not characterize all forms of socialism. Given our definition of socialism above, it is possible to be a socialist while recognizing that (i) the individual is not simply a “molecule” in the social organism; that (ii) free choice is a crucial component of an individual’s good; that (iii) law ought to respect the freedom of the individual; and that (iv) private property is not intrinsically evil and should not be abolished tout court, but only certain kinds of uses of property should be.

    One reason, indeed, for advocating socialism is precisely that it would realize individual freedom (as well as promote the common good) better than capitalism does. Whereas under capitalism individual economic initiative is the privilege only of a few (i.e. owners of means of production, to whom workers are compelled to sell their labor-power and, for the most part, to give up creative control over their labor), socialism could give people more say in their productive activities and would encourage the “building up of an authentic human community” through cooperation. And there should still certainly be space in socialism for small, privately-owned enterprises – just not market-influencing large-scale ones, or those that involve the opposition between capital and labor.

  10. Atheism. John Paul, in reference to “Real Socialism,” says that the “source” of socialism’s “mistaken concept of the nature of the person and the ‘subjectivity’ of society…is atheism” (Centesimus annus, ¶13). But while John Paul is correct that a major problem with twentieth-century “Real Socialist” regimes was their atheism, socialism as such – as an economic system – implies nothing about religion, and is capable of being argued for on either religious or atheistic grounds. For instance, atheistically, one might argue that human autonomy is the highest good and that socialism would best maximize it. Or, religiously, one might contend that the common good requires that the state ensure that the basic needs of citizens, who have dignity and are made in the image of God, are satisfied. Whether or not socialism involves atheism depends critically upon the kinds of reasons adduced in support of it, but atheistic reasons are not the only ones that can be so adduced. From the proposition “a significant part of the economy ought to be communally controlled,” it does not follow that “God does not exist.”

Socialism and the Catechism

By way of digression, it may be useful here to say something about how socialism coheres with the Catechism of the Catholic Church. In sections 2424-5, the Catechism makes three basic points relevant to the issue of socialism. First, a “system that ‘subordinates the basic rights of individuals and of groups to the collective organization of production’ is contrary to human dignity.” Second, the “Church has rejected the totalitarian and atheistic ideologies associated in modern times with ‘communism’ or ‘socialism.’” Third, “[r]egulating the economy solely by centralized planning perverts the basis of social bonds.” Three things, therefore, are condemned by the Catechism: (1) the subordination of “basic rights” of individuals to collective production; (2) the atheism and totalitarianism associated with actually-existing socialist regimes; and (3) an economy run only by central planning.

But none of these points must hold true under socialism in our sense. This is so because individuals’ basic rights (life, religion, [some forms of] property, freedom of association, etc.) could be maintained; because the state could be as decentralized as possible and promote virtue and obedience to God; and because small private productive firms, independent of any central plan, could be welcomed. It is true, of course, that the Catechism also says that “[r]easonable regulation of the marketplace and economic initiatives, in keeping with a just hierarchy of values and a view to the common good, is to be commended” (2425). But what counts as “reasonable” is a subject for disagreement, and a socialist would stress that it is not reasonable to let the majority of humanity be compelled to sell their labor-power on the market.


When the popes condemned “socialism,” what they condemned was a socio-economic system marked by some or all of the following features: rejection of authority; absolute equality; debasement of marriage and the family; denial of a right to/abolition of private property; common ownership of all property; violent class struggle unconstrained by ethics or law; envy of the rich; society as existing only for material advantage; man as only a molecule in the social organism; and atheism.

While certain forms of socialism may indeed contain some or all of these features, other forms of socialism need not – and, importantly, socialism as such need not. Articulating a definition of “socialism” that captures what is common to its many species, we said that “socialism” refers to an economic system which, transcending the self-regulating market, subordinates a significant part of it to communal control. In this generic definition, socialism falls under none of the popes’ condemnations. Any actually-existing socialism, of course, will have to give concrete content to this definition; but, as we have already indicated, there are many ways of providing such content that do not run afoul of the popes’ criticisms of “socialism.” So yes – a Catholic may be a socialist.

But the popes do not merely reject “socialism”; they also outline the moral principles that should shape any society. Even if socialism escapes the popes’ rejections, then, is it still consonant with those moral principles? We will take up this question in Part II.


  1. See Karl Polanyi, The Great Transformation (Boston, MA: Beacon Press, 2001), p. 242.
  2. Marx writes: “A right can by its nature only consist in the application of an equal standard, but unequal individuals (and they would not be different individuals if they were not unequal) can only be measured by the same standard if they are looked at from the same aspect…If all these defects were to be avoided rights would have to be unequal rather than equal. Such defects, however, are inevitable in the first phase of communist society…In a more advanced phase of communist society…only then can society wholly cross the narrow horizon of bourgeois right and inscribe on its banner: From each according to his abilities, to each according to his needs!” (quoted in Karl Marx, The First International and After: Political Writings Volume 3, ed. David Fernbach [Brooklyn, NY: Verso, 2010], p. 347).
  3. For instance, Marx laments that, under capitalism, work no longer “involves the fulfilment of [one’s] personality, the realization of all [one’s] natural talents and spiritual goals” (Early Writings, transl. Rodney Livingstone and Gregor Benton [London, UK: Penguin, 1992], p. 269), and he wants a communist society that involves the “free development of individualities” and “the general reduction of the necessary labour of society to a minimum, which then corresponds to the artistic, scientific, etc. development of the individuals in the time set free” (Grundrisse, transl. Martin Nicolaus [London, UK: Penguin, 1993], p. 706). Free time is important for Marx because, as he says in Value, Price and Profit (§XIII.3), “[t]ime is the room of human development.” 

The Tradinista Project: A Brief History

A Brief History of Recent Catholic Political Discourse

In the United States, 2016 A.D. was a dramatic year in political history, with a surge of socialist organizing around the Democratic Primary bid of Senator Bernie Sanders and the unexpected election of President Donald Trump. It was also the year when a group of Catholics made headlines by launching the “Tradinista!” project dedicated to an orthodox synthesis of Marxism and Catholic Social Teaching.  In September 2016, Matthew Schmitz (who at the time supported the project, before changing his positions) published a summary of how the group began (“I Think I’m Not A Contra“), therein describing their fierce opposition to any “defender of free love or free markets.” In an article for the Catholic Herald, Jose Mena, a founding member of the group, stated that their purpose was to “defend traditional orthodoxy and espouse the radical politics in service of the common good.” Despite their initial popularity, due to internal conflicts, the Tradinista project soon fell apart. An archive of their work can be found below.

This project was made possible by what Kevin Gallagher has called “The Eclipse of Catholic Fusionism“. Though there is a long history to “Americanist” Catholicism, he writes that the term “fusionism” refers specifically “to the conservative political movement attempting to combine social conservatism and free-market capitalism… In the eyes of Catholic fusionists, their views were simply the correct application of Catholic principles to contemporary problems: the Church was to stand on the side of political and economic liberty against communism, and on the side of social and moral order against the sexual revolution.” This conservative-liberal version of Catholicism was especially promoted by Michael Novak’s book The Spirit of Democratic Capitalism (1982), as well as later organizations such as Acton Institute, the magazine First Things, and the Witherspoon Institute. 

During the dark age of fusionism, only a small number of counter-cultural Catholics kept the flame of truth alive. The writings of such distributist, traditionalist, or otherwise radical thinkers could be found in the Catholic Worker, Caelum et Terra, and the American Chesterton Society. After the Great Recession of 2008 and Pope Benedict XVI’s Social Encyclical Caritas In Veritate one year later, Catholics took a renewed interest in the Church’s economic teaching. The fusionist consensus broke down even further after conservatism proved utterly powerless to prevent the legalization of gay marriage in the Supreme Court cases Windsor (2013) and Obergefell (2015).

This brings us to the present day, when many devout Catholics and other people of goodwill are recognizing the lies of liberalism and the injustices of capitalism. Pope Francis’ Encyclical Laudato Si’ (2015), Andrew Willard Jones’ Before Church and State (2017), Patrick Deneen’s Why Liberalism Failed (2018), and Eugene McCarraher’s The Enchantments of Mammon (2019) have become the foundational texts for a new generation of Catholic thinkers. Throughout this time, The Josias, founded in October 2014 “to articulate a truly Catholic political stance”, has served as an excellent manual of translations and academic treatises on “integralism” and other traditional Catholic Social Teaching. (Pater Edmund Waldstein, a Josias editor, has written insightful comments on the Tradinista project here and here.)

Our own work at Tradistae was founded to promote the praxis demanded by these teachings, especially the Works of Mercy. On Pentecost 2019, inspired by the Catholic Worker, we launched a series of Easy Essays to provide short and non-academic writings “to provide straightforward answers to simple questions” about distributism, integralism, and Catholic Social Teaching. You can learn more about us here.

The Tradinista! Archive

At Tradistae, we absolutely reject the ideology of Marxism, which responded to the evil of capitalism with its own evils. Many Encyclicals have discussed the errors of Marxism at length and Our Lady of Fatima specifically predicted and condemned the “errors of Russia” (referring to Bolshevik Communism). Likewise, we reject the label of “socialism” and place ourselves in the distributist tradition, as did Dorothy Day and G.K. Chesterton.

Nonetheless, we recognize the importance of liberation theology, which has guided and inspired many recent Saints, Blesseds, and Servants of God. Therefore, we value the writings of the Tradinista project for their exposition of MacInytre’s Thomism, their commitment to orthodox principles, and their contribution to the on-going project of overcoming liberalism, capitalism, and modernity so that, through the grace of God, we may build a world dedicated to the Social Kingship of Christ. 


The Tradinista! Manifesto
The Magisterial Sources of the Tradinista! Manifesto: Part I
The Magisterial Sources of the Tradinista! Manifesto: Part II

‘A Catholic Socialism’ Series

A Catholic Socialism? Part I
A Catholic Socialism? Part II
A Catholic Socialism? Part III

Other Articles

St. Marx and the Dragon
The President-Elect
Aristotle, Thomas, Marx: A Dialogue
A Radical Politics of Solidarity in the Age of Abortion
What Thomism Has to Do With Marx

The Magisterial Sources of the Tradinista! Manifesto: Part I

The following article was published on 19 October 2016 by the “Tradinista Collective.” It has been republished on Tradistae not as a full endorsement of its ideas but to provide an archive of the Tradinista projectThe related manifesto is here. The second part is here

The Magisterial Sources of the Tradinista! Manifesto: Part I


We are well aware that the Tradinista project is controversial. After all, the popes have condemned “socialism” in seemingly unequivocal terms. And recent events in civil society have brought sexual ethics into the spotlight with a prurient regularity. We are deeply aware of the fact that the default mode of engagement of “left” American Catholicism is heresy, unorthodoxy, and dissent: we wish to propose an alternative. However, we are likewise aware that the popes’ social teaching may not be summarized in simplistic terms. Therefore, we have prepared this doctrinal commentary to elucidate the magisterial sources for the propositions set forth in the Tradinista Manifesto. It is our hope that this document – while only a partial treatment of the various questions raised by the broad range of magisterial texts engaged with – might settle the question of the basic orthodoxy of the Manifesto and allow the prevailing discussion to ascend to broader, prudential questions.

Here a specifically Christian dimension of our project becomes clear. For while politics is a natural science, our basic view is that the magisterium—and sources clearly approved by the magisterium (e.g., St. Thomas’s Summa Theologiae)—represents the ultimate touchstone for assessing any political proposition. Furthermore, our view is that the Church must not be denied her right, conferred upon her ultimately by Our Lord Jesus Christ, to pass judgment with universal applicability on political, economic, and moral questions. A view which would seek to deny this right, condemned by Leo XIII in «Testem benevolentiae nostrae» and Pius XI in «Ubi arcano Dei consilia», is inadmissible and deplorable. We do, however, acknowledge that some points in the Manifesto admit of differing perspectives and are questions ultimately of interpretation, and so we anticipate that subsequent notes, essays, and comments will be devoted to exploring the range of interpretation permitted on these points.

Given the Church’s unquestionable right to judge matters economic and political, we have always intended to approach the teachings of the Church in a spirit of humble submission and docility, seeking always to conform ourselves to those teachings, rather than to conform those teachings to our preexisting prejudices. For it is our view that a Catholic must be a Catholic first – or he or she will be nothing in the end. Nevertheless, to submit to those teachings does not mean that they may not be applied to concrete circumstances, nor does it mean that those teachings admit of only one possible interpretation. This is in fact essential to the role of handing on a living tradition: that role requires our obedient engagement, interpretation, and explication, always in a posture of prayerful supplication to the Holy Spirit, so that it may be passed on in the manner enjoined by the Apostles.

Neither does it mean that philosophical speculation is forbidden to the Christian; but only that philosophy cannot be founded on a denial of the basic truths of faith and morals. We submit to the magisterial teaching of the Church as a sure foundation for the construction of right philosophy. But this does not mean the Church has spoken authoritatively on every part of philosophy, especially in matters of political doctrine. We are obliged by our reverence for the Church’s social doctrine to – by philosophy – engage with the realities of modern life as thoroughly as possible, so that the principles the Church articulates might be most fruitfully applied to contemporary circumstances. No more and no less has been our project.

What does it mean to engage with the tradition of the Church? The Church teaches infallibly that the basic content of divine revelation is made up of both the written scriptures and unwritten traditions, given to the Apostles either by the mouth of Christ Himself or by the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. (Council of Trent, Decree on the Reception of Sacred Books (Apr. 8, 1546); First Vatican Council, Dogmatic Constitution on the Catholic Faith «Dei Filius» (Apr. 24, 1870) at ch. 1.) The Apostles themselves enjoined the faithful to keep the traditions that they had received from Jesus Christ, the God-Man. (2 Thess. 2:15.) Those traditions, therefore, constitute the deposit of faith, which has been handed on by the Apostles to their successors – and so forth – to the present day. While nothing may be added to or subtracted from the deposit of faith, the Church teaches us that the apostolic tradition develops in the Church with the help of the Holy Spirit. (Second Vatican Council, Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation «Dei Verbum» (Nov. 18, 1965) at ch. 2.) This development takes the form of a growth in the understanding of the single deposit of faith left to us by Christ, which is complete, not a revision or replacement of this deposit of faith.

Seen properly, the centrality of tradition to the Christian faith becomes obvious. To ignore or deprecate tradition is to ignore or deprecate divine revelation – and the earthly mission of Christ – itself. Furthermore, the tradition of the Church is inextricably bound up with the Church’s teaching authority. While the popes are promised the charism of infallibility when they exercise their extraordinary magisterium under the conditions outlined in «Pastor aeternus», the universal ordinary magisterium is itself infallible, since it represents tradition in a real sense. Teachings restating the universal ordinary magisterium—or consistent with it—themselves are infallible and binding upon the consciences of the faithful. Conversely, teachings inconsistent with the universal ordinary magisterium are less binding upon the faithful, relying primarily upon the authority of the teacher. But if a teaching seems to contradict the universal ordinary magisterium, it is necessary either to interpret it in the light of tradition, if possible, or to privilege earlier, more authoritative teachings.

The question of the tradition is not purely academic where the Church’s teachings regarding politics and the economy are concerned, since these have become an important feature of the tradition. Therefore, the economic and social teachings of the popes have to be assessed in the manner described above. That is the purpose of this document.


Preliminary Note on Citations: In this commentary, the Committee has endeavored to provide precise citations to permit anyone interested to delve into the sources discussed. This raises the problem of which version to use. For magisterial sources such as encyclical letters, when possible, the paragraph numbers or section numbers of the electronic versions available on the Vatican’s website will be given.[1] For other sources, commonly used citation styles will be employed.

Comment on the Manifesto Prologue: The Manifesto focuses on social structures more than the actions of individuals in many sections. Such structural discussions have been part of the Church’s social magisterium from Leo XIII’s «Rerum novarum» to the present day. Leo himself speaks of society “divided into two classes, separated by a deep chasm” («Rerum novarum» ¶132). However, St. John Paul II made the most serious contribution to this topic when he introduced the concept of ‘structures of sin’ in his 1984 apostolic exhortation, «Reconciliatio et Paenitentia» (no. 16), and his 1987 social encyclical, «Sollicitudo rei socialis» (no. 36). St. John Paul acknowledges that individuals introduce certain structures, consolidate them, and make them difficult to remove, leading these structures to spread to others and ultimately perpetuate themselves. Furthermore, the saint teaches that no sin may be said to be truly individual; every sin, especially sins against the common good or sins against the rights of individuals, affects others in some way. However, the saint very carefully emphasizes that these structures arise from personal actions and are sustained by personal actions. Thus, St. John Paul teaches us that it is possible to focus on structural injustices without mitigating individual responsibility. The Church affirms that the impermissible aspects of these structures are bound up with individual actions inextricably, so that to talk about structures is in a very real sense to talk about individual responsibility, as well as the individual actions that create and perpetuate those structures. It the perennial Christian understanding that we are not simply atoms in an aggregate, but rather social creatures who naturally form various social groupings and arrangements, which demand to be understood on their own terms.

1. Jesus Christ is the way, and the truth, and the life, who became man for the salvation of all.

Fontes: Pius XII, Encyclical on the Mystical Body of Christ «Mystici Corporis Christi» (June 29, 1943), at ¶¶ 1, 13–14, 29–31; Second Vatican Council, Dogmatic Constitution on the Church «Lumen gentium» (Nov. 21, 1964), at ch. 1; Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Declaration «Dominus Iesus» on the Unicity and Salvific Universality of Jesus Christ and the Church (Aug. 6, 2000), at no. 5.

Comment: This proposition is self evident to any Christian and does not require magisterial support, except insofar as the Church has reminded us in recent years that it must be maintained unfailingly that Jesus Christ is the Incarnate Word of God, and such a belief must be confessed without hesitation in order to obtain everlasting life, which is the ultimate end of all humanity. Nevertheless, dialogue with all men and women of good will is possible and desirable, just insofar as – as St. Paul and the fathers of First Vatican Council remind us – God and the moral law are knowable by natural reason, providing a universal basis for political dialogue.

2. Political authority ought to promote the teachings of the Church.

Fontes: St. Gelasius I, «Famuli vestrae pietatis» (494); Innocent III, «Novit ille» (1204); Boniface VIII, «Unam sanctam» (Nov. 18, 1302); Pope St. Pius V, «Regnans in excelsis» (Feb. 25, 1570); Benedict XIV, Brief to the Cardinal Duke of York «Singulari nobis» (Feb. 9, 1749); Gregory XVI, Encyclical Letter on Liberalism and Religious Indifferentism «Mirari vos» (Aug. 15, 1832); Leo XIII, Encyclical Letter on the Christian Constitution of States «Immortale Dei» (Nov. 1, 1885); St. Pius X, Encyclical Letter on Labor Organizations «Singulari quadam» (Sept. 24, 1912); Pius XI, Encyclical Letter on the Feast of Christ the King «Quas primas» (Dec. 11, 1925); Second Vatican Council, Declaration on Religious Freedom «Dignitatis humanae» (Dec. 7, 1965), Francis, Encyclical Letter on Faith «Lumen Fidei» (June 29, 2013) at no. 55. Saint Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae [ST] II-II q.10 a.8 co. & ad 2. St. Thomas Aquinas, De Regno ad Regem Cypri I, 15.

Comment: Christ is King over the whole world, including – we are taught by many good and holy popes – over both the baptized who have fallen into error and the unbaptized. All men are subject to the power of Jesus Christ; the tradition is unfailing and clear on this point. Nevertheless, as Aquinas teaches us, the unbaptized must be reasoned with, not coerced. While the long history of the Church affirms that the temporal power is ordered to and subject to the spiritual power, the Fathers of the Second Vatican Council tell us that the Church no longer requires, as a matter of prudence, the aid of the state in compelling heretics and apostates to live up to their baptismal promises. On this point, we are indebted to the scholarship of Thomas Pink. Nevertheless, the Church retains jurisdiction and moral authority over all the baptized, Catholic or otherwise, as the great Benedict XIV wrote to the Cardinal Duke of York.

3. The goal of political authority is to create a good and virtuous people.

Fontes: Leo XIII, Encyclical Letter on the Origin of Civil Power «Diuturnum illud» (Jun. 29, 1881) at ¶¶ 12–15; Leo XIII, «Immortale Dei» at ¶ 6; Leo XIII, Encyclical on the Nature of Human Liberty «Libertas praestantissimum» (Jun. 20, 1888), at ¶ 9; Pius X, Encyclical Letter on the Errors of La Sillon «Notre charge apostolique» (Aug. 25, 1910); Paul VI, Apostolic Letter to Maurice Cardinal Roy on the Occasion of the Eightieth Anniversary of the Encyclical “Rerum Novarum” «Octogesima adveniens» (May 14, 1971) at ¶ 46. ST I-II q.90 a.1 co.; ST I-II q.90 a.4 co.; ST I-II q.95 a.1 co.; St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Contra Gentiles II c.114; St. Thomas Aquinas, De Regno at I, 16.

Comment: This principle has been articulated consistently in terms of natural reason since the time of Aristotle. The purpose of the civil authority is to pursue and protect the common good of its subjects; the intrinsic natural common good of civil society is, of course, peace. Leo XIII teaches in «Immortale Dei», however, that the same nature and reason which bind men to worship and obey God also bind the civil authority to worship and obey God. But the two powers are more deeply connected than merely being bound by the same nature and reason. St. Paul brings the question of civil authority into the divine order by teaching us that all civil rulers have received their authority from God. Indeed, Pius X condemned in «Notre charge apostolique» any political dispensation that asserts that power comes from the people and remains vested in the people, referring to the same text of St. Paul. Therefore, any attempt to vest man with disordered independence and liberty must be rejected, since such an attempt implicitly – or explicitly, as the case may be – rejects authorities constituted by God. What is condemned here cannot be understood to be democracy per se; rather more importantly, what is condemned is the humanity and the polity making an idol of themselves, and refusing to order themselves properly to God. To sum up, God alone vests authorities with power, and the Apostle teaches that they must be obeyed insofar as they rule rightly. Therefore, the civil authority must rule consistently with God’s law and the natural law to be legitimate. Rulers who cease to rule consistently with God’s law and the natural law cease to be legitimate. Finally, the highest common good is God, and therefore it may be said that the end of civil society is less excellent than the ultimate end of all men. And Leo XIII tells us in «Immortale Dei» that the goal of every endeavor, including political endeavors, must be the highest good: God. This reality may have consequences for the right ordering of the state and the Church, but it does not change the basic fact that the civil authority must pursue and protect the common good.

4. Political authority must be decentralized as far as possible.

Fontes: Leo XIII, «Diuturnum illud» at ¶ 7; Leo XIII, Encyclical Letter on Capital and Labor «Rerum novarum» (May 15, 1891) at ¶ 35–37; Pius X, «Notre charge apostolique»; Pius XI, Encyclical Letter on the Reconstruction of the Social Order «Quadragesimo anno» (May 15, 1931), at ¶ 80; St. John Paul II, Encyclical Letter on the Hundredth Anniversary of Rerum Novarum «Centesimus annus» (May 1, 1991) at no. 48.

Comment: Subsidiarity is a central point of Catholic social teaching, and the popes have developed the Church’s teaching on subsidiarity since «Rerum novarum». In recent years, a popular understanding has emerged that sees subsidiarity as little more than American-style federalism. But this view both overstates and understates the correct view of subsidiarity. In the concept of Leo XIII and Pius XI, subsidiarity requires issues to be addressed by the smallest competent unit, recalling always that the rights of individuals and families must be respected, as St. John Paul teaches us in «Centesimus annus». Some issues are so complex and important that they may be addressed only at the national or supranational level. In such cases, it does violence to the concept of subsidiarity when such issues are committed to smaller, ultimately incompetent units. Other issues, however, may be addressed locally: and here it would do violence to subsidiarity for regional, national, and supranational government to take responsibility for the issues. Of course, determining which issues ought to be addressed at a regional or national level and which issues ought to be addressed locally is a difficult task calling for careful discernment. Nevertheless, a presumption of decentralization and localization ought to be adopted, as such a presumption most assiduously ensures that the rights of families and individuals are safeguarded. It must be noted, furthermore, that radical decentralization on the basis of subsidiarity necessarily implies hierarchy, based on the various common goods considered at each level of social organization. In other words, the total leveling of society condemned in «Notre charge apostolique» – effected today through means of capitalist democracy and the atomization of the state – is rejected in this approach. However, it must be said, in accordance with «Diuturnum illud», that it is not necessary to adopt any particular form of government to comply with the mandates of subsidiarity, provided that the government is just and ordered to the common good. Leo XIII teaches that the customs and traditions of a given people may be considered in determining the appropriate form of government.

5. Economic life should be ordered to the common good.

Fontes: Leo XIII, «Rerum novarum» at ¶ 22; Pius XI, «Quadragesimo anno» at ¶ 25, 49, 57; St. John Paul II, «Centesimus annus» at no. 40.

Comment: This point requires no serious magisterial defense, having been articulated consistently by the popes, most precisely by Pius XI in «Quadragesimo anno». The prevailing consensus: that economic life is separate from political life; that the capitalist market left unregulated generates spontaneously the conditions congenial to the common good; all of this is rejected out of hand by many good and holy popes. It has been 125 years since Leo XIII had the temerity to petition capital even for the minimum guarantee of a just wage. Not even this has been granted.

6. Capitalism must be abolished.

Fontes: Leo XIII, «Rerum novarum» at ¶¶ 36–37; Pius XI, «Quadragesimo anno» at ¶¶ 54, 59–61; St. John Paul II, Encyclical Letter on Human Work on the Ninetieth Anniversary of Rerum Novarum «Laborem exercens» (Sept. 14, 1981) at no. 7; St. John Paul II, «Centesimus annus» at nos. 8, 33; Francis, Apostolic Exhortation on the Proclamation of the Gospel in Today’s World «Evangelii Gaudium» (Nov. 24, 2013); Francis, Encyclical Letter on Care for Our Common Home «Laudato si’» (May 24, 2015) at ¶¶ 106, 109.

Comment: It is the great Pius XI who outlines most precisely the brief against capitalism as such in «Quadragesimo anno» when he explained that there was a tendency in the capitalist class to accumulate to itself all profits, and that no one class may exclude another from sharing in the gains of labor. Yet that is precisely what has continued to happen—despite Pius’s warnings—and it has reached a terminal stage in recent years, with St. John Paul II acknowledging, in «Centesimus annus», that the capitalist class has continued to abuse the rights of workers in the process of accumulating to itself ever larger quantities the fruits of labor. In «Laborem exercens», he also identifies that a primary function of capitalism is to treat man “solely as an instrument of production,” subverting the “right order of values” in Christian society. One point that Pope Francis has fairly recently identified is the connection between capitalist economies and the modern anthropocentric, technocratic mindset that seeks to dominate and control. At long last, it must be said that the exploitation of workers and the rapacious, endless quest for gain by the capitalist class lies within the logic of capitalism itself. Indeed, it may be said that capital consistently opposes the common good by pursuing only its sectarian interest. The only way, therefore, to comply with the popes’ commands for a just economy is to abolish the capitalist social relation. This is the fundamental insight of the Tradinista project: the logic of capitalism rejects the popes’ warnings and guidance for a more humane and just political economy, but precisely the logic of capitalism militates against this. Long enough has capital failed to obey the clear direction of every pope who has written on political economy under capitalism; it therefore becomes necessary to reject capitalism itself, in order to better obey their commands.

To the rejection of capitalism, it is often objected that various papal documents, particularly in the magisterium of Leo XIII and Pius X, specifically forbid a reorganization along these lines. Such a reading is fatally compromised insofar as it attempts to create tensions between the popes to achieve a desired result. In «Rerum novarum», Leo recognized that the public authority must intervene to protect the interests and rights of a particular class, showing always special solicitude for the poor, particularly wage earners. Pius XI’s important clarification regarding the subordination, if necessary, of the use of property to the common good—a correction of Leo’s departure from the Thomistic tradition—which was itself clarified by John XXIII, Paul VI, and the Second Vatican Council, provides the key to harmonizing the magisterial pronouncements on this point. It is apparent that capital will unfailingly tread upon the interests and rights of labor, and that steps must be taken in accordance with the popes’ consistent teaching to defend the rights of workers, including by ordering the ownership and use of property to the common good.

A common theme running through the magisterial treatment of the theses on political economy is that there is development in the social magisterium running from the time of Leo XIII to the present day. On this point, we are indebted to Ernest Fortin’s treatment of «Rerum Novarum» in the context of the tradition and subsequent magisterium. While it is beyond the scope of this commentary to fully discuss the intricacies of this hermeneutical approach – which we will devote space in future essays to – for now it suffices to say that we see in the Leonine magisterium a great deal of sound Thomistic and traditional political philosophy mixed with some not insigificant principles of liberal thought, alien to the Catholic political tradition. Subsequent papal teachings have in many cases clarified and corrected the Leonine view, in the light of the perennial tradition of the Church. Our project does not single out the Leonine magisterium for special criticism – indeed our project is greatly indebted to it – but we do warn against an excessive idolatry of the Leo’s teachings, to the exclusion of subsequent clarifications. We also reject out of hand any attempt to view the social magisterium as solely an artifact of the postconciliar period – or of only the magisterium of St. John Paul II – which we have noticed among various apologists for the liberal order. The social magisterium must be read as a whole, including the various interventions before Leo, all in the light of Scripture and perennial tradition.

7. Class society must be erased.

Fontes: Leo XIII, Encyclical Letter on Socialism «Quod apostolici muneris» (Dec. 28, 1878) at ¶¶ 5–7; Pius X, «Singulari quadam» at ¶ 3; Pius XI, «Quadragesimo anno» at ¶ 114; St. John Paul II, «Laborem exercens»; St. John Paul II, «Centesimus annus» at no. 14; Francis, Address of the Holy Father at the World Meeting of Popular Movements (Oct. 28, 2014); Francis, Address of the Holy Father at the Second World Meeting of Popular Movements (July 9, 2015).

Comment: The creation of an absolute equality in society is condemned by Leo XIII in «Quod apostolici muneris». It is, as St. Pius X noted in his restatement of «Quod apostolici muneris» (and sundry other interventions of the Leonine magisterium), «Fin dalla prima nostra», impossible to do. Yet the elimination of economic class society is not the same thing as the absolute leveling of society. Indeed, Leo XIII does not focus his discussion in «Quod apostolici muneris» in merely economic terms; in particular, Leo was concerned with the rejection of authority and majesty more generally. Certainly that great pope opposed, in «Rerum novarum», unjust and exploitative behavior by the capital class, yet we do not hold that he contradicted himself. The question, therefore, is what is permissible in the context of opposing unjust class structures.

While it is common to assert that “class struggle” is forbidden by the popes, a careful review of the magisterium, especially as it develops after the Leonine period, demonstrates amply that this is not true. What is forbidden by the popes – as St. John Paul explains in «Centesimus annus», the longest and clearest magisterial intervention on this topic – is a total-war approach to class struggle. Conflicts between classes are inevitable in class society. When the workers find themselves under sustained assault, as they most certainly are under capitalism, they are permitted to organize and mobilize in their own defense. Indeed, under such circumstances as obtain under capitalism, the saint teaches us that it is impossible for Christians to remain idle. We must choose sides. It is impossible to claim neutrality or avoid the conflict on mere pretext. Whether the classes in question are naturally mutually antagonistic, as Leo warns against holding in «Rerum novarum» ¶19, is immaterial; what matters is that they are in fact locked in conflict. And it is unambiguously taught that the Christian’s moral duty lies with the laborer, with the weaker, with the oppressed. However, class struggle must leave behind mere sectarian strife and become an inclusive effort toward a just ordering of society in accordance with the common good.

Such an effort may never take an eliminationist posture or resort wantonly to violence, though the Church’s well defined moral teachings do not absolutely preclude violence in favor of quietism. In all cases, human dignity must be respected, recalling always that the effort is not to obliterate the enemies of a class, but to shape a more just society and serve the common good. Once again, one may cite this or that sentence or two from a prior papal document in a superficial attempt to claim that Catholicism categorically forbids the sort of class struggle discussed here. But, once again, such a view creates unnecessary conflicts in the social magisterium of the Church. The subsequent papal magisterium discussed above, particularly St. John Paul’s pellucid teaching in «Centesimus annus», clearly explains what is forbidden in class struggle, and the answer is not everything. Francis’ recent addresses to the World Meeting of Popular Movements demonstrate a clear papal solidarity with those involved in the struggle for inclusion and justice, over and against an economic system which deprives them of their basic human dignity.

8. Livelihood should not depend on the market.

Fontes: Pius XI, «Quadragesimo anno» at ¶¶ 83, 88; St. John XXIII, Encyclical Letter on Establishing Universal Peace in Truth, Justice, Charity, and Liberty «Pacem in Terris» (Apr. 11, 1963); John Paul II, «Centesimus annus» at no. 35; Francis, Address of the Holy Father at the Second World Meeting of Popular Movements.

Comment: The popes plainly teach that markets are not per se unjust, though markets are subject to various distortions, including inducing the false ideology identified by Pius XI, which is that the market creates its own regulation through competition. This is manifestly not the case, yet it is in the logic of capitalism to insist upon the absolute supremacy of the market, which is precisely what has been denied by the popes consistently. Thus, while markets are not per se unjust, markets under capitalism tend inexorably toward injustice. Moreover, St. John XXIII identified that man has a right to the means necessary for the proper development of life, particularly the essentials such as food, clothing, shelter, rest, and medical care. Yet the logic of the market would deny that man has such rights, calling them only demands, and require him to sell his labor in order to obtain money to purchase these essentials. Indeed, this is perhaps the cruelest aspect of the market: one is drawn into the logic of capitalism to obtain essentials to which one has an unquestioned right.

9. Every person has a right to property.

Fontes: Leo XIII, «Rerum novarum» at ¶ 46; Pius XI, «Quadragesimo anno» at ¶¶ 44–49; Second Vatican Council, «Gaudium et Spes» at no. 71; Paul VI, «Populorum progressio» at no. 23; Francis, Address of the Holy Father at the Second World Meeting of Popular Movements. ST II-II q.66 a.2 co. & ad 1; ST II-II a.66 a.7 co. & ad 2.

Comment: On this topic, much could be said, and we anticipate that much more will be said at a more opportune moment. For now, it must be acknowledged that Leo XIII held that there is a sacred and inviolable right to private property. However, it must be likewise acknowledged that Leo XIII’s great encyclical, «Rerum novarum», did not restate precisely the prior teaching of the Church on this point, particularly the teaching of St. Thomas Aquinas, and in some manner represents an innovation, not to say a breach. Given the social circumstances that the great pope confronted, such an innovation is understandable as a reaction to forces hostile to the Church. Unfortunately, this departure created a tension with the Church’s teaching up to 1891. Subsequent popes, notably Pius XI and Paul VI, and the Second Vatican Council have happily resolved this tension and clarified this teaching through a hermeneutic of continuity with the prior, Thomistic teaching of the Church. It may be said, therefore, after «Gaudium et Spes» and «Populorum progressio», that the Church’s teaching returned almost completely to Thomas and clarified the Leonine teaching in the light of the Church’s more ancient tradition. There is indeed a right to private property, but that right is conditioned by the common good. Francis speaks of the universal destination of goods as “prior to the right to private property,” affirming that property must always serve the needs of the people. When private property contravenes the common good seriously, the state has an obligation to correct the situation. The Second Vatican Council and Paul VI use the example of unproductive landed estates in developing countries; in such situations, the land may be expropriated and redistributed more equitably.

10. Worker cooperatives should be strongly encouraged.

Fontes: Leo XIII, «Rerum novarum» at ¶ 13; Pius XI, «Quadragesimo anno» at ¶ 80.

Comment: The popes recognize the importance of widespread distribution of productive property, not least to guarantee to families a stable source for the necessities of life. Such a distribution, furthermore, would more precisely obey the mandates of subsidiarity and ensure that the rights of workers are more adequately protected. Nevertheless, while widespread private ownership of productive property – by individuals and worker cooperatives – should be encouraged (so long as it is not carried out in a capitalist or exploitative way), the state has a role to ensure that people’s basic needs do not go unmet; how this task of the state is best to be carried out will vary from society to society.


  1. It is important in this context to recall that the ordinary magisterium, even of the popes, is only infallible when universal.