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.
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
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”. 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.” 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.”
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.” 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. 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.
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.
- Revelation 13:17; 17:13
- Translator’s Preface to the Penguin Classics edition of Capital: Volume I
- P.175 Capital Vol. 1.2
- P.105 London, 1966
- 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.
- Revelation 18:11-13
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.
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 ), 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.
- 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).
- This was true of ancient Greece, even though surplus-labor was mostly produced by and extracted from slaves.
- 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.
- 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.
- John XXIII in Pacem in Terris ¶11 speaks of these – the “means necessary for the proper development of life” – as basic rights of humankind.
- Consider the not-inconsiderable planning that already occurs in capitalist economies today, whether within firms or by the state.
- 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“.
- 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.
- Or rather, the structural compulsion to work for capitalists.
- 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.
- MacIntyre, “Three Perspectives on Marxism,” p. 150.
- 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
- Andrew Collier, Christianity and Marxism: A Philosophical Contribution to Their Reconciliation (King’s Lynn, UK: Routledge, 2001), p. 118.
- This is basically David Schweickart’s “Economic Democracy”; see his Against Capitalism (Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 1996).
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
- 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.
- 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).
- 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  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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.)
- 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.
- 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.
- 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
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
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.”
- 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.
- 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
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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).
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- See Karl Polanyi, The Great Transformation (Boston, MA: Beacon Press, 2001), p. 242.
- 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).
- 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.”
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.