by Rev. Robert A. Sirico
One doesn’t usually expect a thorough-going reconstruction of the history of socialism in the late 19th century from the pope, but Benedict XVI delivered to us a wonderful–and oh-so-needed–reminder of what socialism was (and is), and why it went wrong. One can’t but marvel at his intellectual power: He has discerned the essential problem that has evaded vast numbers of academics for 100 years.
What’s more, he has done this in a time when socialism as an ideology seems to have been unfazed by the collapse of the communist experiment. Visit the philosophy and English departments on most college campuses, and you will still find intellectuals waxing eloquent on the glories of socialist theory. Students are still encouraged to imagine that it could work.
What about the Soviet Union? We are told that this wasn’t really socialism. And what about Nazism–the German word for national socialism? Oh, that’s not socialism either. What about the growing impoverishment in once-rich countries with social democratic governments? The failure of micro-socialism in the United States, where entire communities have lived on government subsidies and are plagued with frightening levels of social pathology? They say that this is not socialism either.
Large swaths of American academia are in denial. So too are major parts of the American and European clerical class, which is still under the impression that socialism represents a gospel ideal that has yet to be tried. One suspects that the entire history of the 20th century passed them by, for they have learned nothing from the poverty, despotism, and vast suffering wrought by the socialist ideology.
Not Benedict. He wants to talk about it. It fits his message of hope precisely. Are we to discover our hope in salvation from God or from some material transformation?
The passages occur in his great encyclical Spe Salvi (“in hope we are saved”). He addresses this core Christian virtue and explains what hope is and what it is not, what salvation is and is not.
History is strewn with intellectuals who imagined that they could save the world–and created hell on earth as a result. The pope counts the socialists among them, and Karl Marx in particular. Here was an intellectual who imagined that salvation could occur without God, and that something approximating the Kingdom of God on earth could be created by adjusting the material conditions of man.
History, in Marx’s view, was nothing but the crashes and grinding of these material forces. There was no such thing as a fixed human nature. There was certainly no God who is the author of history. There are no permanent themes that follow along moral lines. Rather, we are all merely pushed around by large and impersonal forces. But it is possible to wrest these forces within our control, to our advantage, provided we take the right steps.
And what are these steps, in Marx’s view? The expropriated working classes must take back what is rightfully theirs from the exploiting capitalist classes. Call it mass thievery, if you like–the point is to gain power over the production forces of society. This is where history is headed anyway, said Marx; we only need to give it a shove in the right direction to achieve the bliss of socialism. How will it work? Well, Marx never thought much about that. Why should he? The large and impersonal forces of history would hammer that out. It was only his job to describe the great events that lead to the revolutionary environment. What follows after is not really a matter of bourgeois science; we must simply accept on faith that somehow, somewhere, sometime, socialism will begin to work brilliantly.
Bizarre? It’s not so strange. We can look to the ancient world and see that many of the greatest intellectuals imagined that there would come a time when the problems of economics–scarcity, ownership, calculation, money–would vanish and utopia would appear. You might say that this is a longing for the Garden of Eden, but it neglects a critical fact: human nature is the same now as it always was. There will always be a need to advance beyond a state of nature. The economic problem is intractable. Simply asserting that the new world will magically appear begs critical issues, such as how we are to feed, clothe, and house people.
Benedict sums the problem up neatly:
Together with the victory of the revolution, though, Marx’s fundamental error also became evident. He showed precisely how to overthrow the existing order, but he did not say how matters should proceed thereafter. He simply presumed that with the expropriation of the ruling class, with the fall of political power and the socialization of means of production, the new Jerusalem would be realized. Then, indeed, all contradictions would be resolved, man and the world would finally sort themselves out. Then everything would be able to proceed by itself along the right path, because everything would belong to everyone and all would desire the best for one another.
Socialism included no plan for the post-revolutionary world. Once economists discovered this central flaw, they seized on it and pointed out that socialism had no system in mind for solving the core economic problem of allocating scarce resources among unlimited needs, and certainly no system for creating the new wealth that would be needed to sustain a rising population.
Nonetheless, the revolution happened:
Thus, having accomplished the revolution, Lenin must have realized that the writings of the master gave no indication as to how to proceed. True, Marx had spoken of the interim phase of the dictatorship of the proletariat as a necessity which in time would automatically become redundant. This ‘intermediate phase’ we know all too well, and we also know how it then developed, not ushering in a perfect world, but leaving behind a trail of appalling destruction. Marx . . . omitted to work out how this new world would be organized–which should, of course, have been unnecessary.
The “appalling destruction” referred to here is a reference to war that occurred soon after the revolution. Millions died in famine and wholesale slaughter. It became clear to Lenin that he had to back away, lest there be no one left to rule. That he did–and just in time, with the New Economic Policy. But the dictatorship continued. So too did the poverty relative to capitalist nations.
So why did Marx never explain how socialism would work?
His silence on this matter follows logically from his chosen approach. His error lay deeper. He forgot that man always remains man. He forgot man and he forgot man’s freedom. He forgot that freedom always remains also freedom for evil. He thought that once the economy had been put right, everything would automatically be put right. His real error is materialism: man, in fact, is not merely the product of economic conditions, and it is not possible to redeem him purely from the outside by creating a favourable economic environment.
And so the pope has put the problems of economics exactly in the right light: the practical issue that needs to be settled within the framework of a sound morality and understanding of human nature. Socialism fails for a precise and practical reason: It has no system for pricing factors of production to make economic calculation possible. Prices come from the exchange of the very private property with which socialism dispenses.
And yet the moral problem with socialism is more profound: It exalts theft as an ethic and overlooks the human right of freedom.
Would that every Catholic interested in economics would read this encyclical. Some are getting the message already: The Catholic Church in Venezuela worked against Hugo Chavez’s dangerous plan for nationalization and regimentation of economic life. Someday, the world will come to learn the lessons that the history of socialism has taught. In the meantime, Benedict XVI is proving to be a wonderful teacher.
The views expressed by the authors and editorial staff are not necessarily the views of
Sophia Institute, Holy Spirit College, or the Thomas More College of Liberal Arts.
By Rev. Robert A. Sirico
Rev. Robert A. Sirico is president and co-founder of the Acton Institute for the Study of Religion and Liberty in Grand Rapids, Michigan.