“If the principles of liberalism are valid, then socialism, which is in fact one of the most perverse aberrations of the human spirit, is fully justified.”
These words of the 19th-century Archbishop Wilhelm Emmanuel von Ketteler capture the central dilemma of Catholic thought in relation to Marxism. The Church’s engagement with Marx transformed Catholic social thinking. But it could not be called a dialogue.Marxism remained impervious to Catholicism and did not renounce historical materialism and atheism. Catholic thought, however, remained very interested in Marxism, and the categories of capital, alienation and the proletariat played an extremely important role in the development of Catholic social thought.
The reason for this is that capitalism – the idea that human beings and nature itself were commodities to be owned, traded and subject to price fluctuation like any other – was a profound threat to love, humanity and ethics. It was also a threat to the Church. The liberalism referred to by Ketteler was a system of individual self-fulfilment without limit. In its denial of the social nature of the person, the divine inheritance of creation and the presence of a soul in each person, it violated the sacred. The archbishop died on his way to Rome with a copy of Das Kapital in his bag.
One of the roots of this change in thinking lay in England and the role of Cardinal Henry Edward Manning. At the time of the dock strike in 1889, he wrote:
The capitalist is invulnerable in his wealth. The working man without bread has no choice but either to agree or to hunger in his hungry home. For this cause “freedom of contract” has been the gospel of the employers, and they have resented hotly the intervention of peacemakers. They have claimed that no one can come between them and their men; that their relation to them is a private, almost a domestic affair. They forget that when thousands of women and children suffer while they are refusing to grant a penny more in wages, or an hour less in work, there is a wide field of misery caused by their refusal to negotiate in this strike. It is not a private affair; it is a public evil…
In one stroke the relationship between capital and labour was transferred from the private to the public realm. The power relations between a worker dependent on their wage for survival and an owner who could endure temporary disruptions through their accumulation of “dead capital” was not an equal one. Marx argued that capitalism was based on a systematic incentive to vice, greed, self-regard and reward, as well as the exploitation of the natural and human environment.
There was much to learn here from Marx, and the work of the contemporary philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre is arguably the most profound synthesis of the two in its sustained critique of liberalism as a form of contractual individualism.
The evocation of St Benedict and Trotsky at the end of MacIntyre’s celebrated work, After Virtue, is not accidental. And it was Catholic social thought that teased out a profound problem with Marx’s thought: its tendency towards moral relativism, an inhumane anthropology and a progressive faith in science and technology as the telos, or ultimate aim, of human civilisation.
Augusto Del Noce, an Italian anti-fascist, has developed a most interesting critique of Marx. He argued that as Marxism became weaker politically and withdrew from the possibility of a revolution, as it ceased to claim a superior political economy and withdrew into cultural criticism, it became more powerful in culture and society. The form this took was the relentless critique of all forms of institutional power as a mask for self-interest and domination. Marxism unmasked the delusions of family, nation and religion but could develop no alternative vision other than that of individual emancipation, which took the primary form of sexual liberation and consumerism. In this way, Marxism did the work of global capitalism.
As it regarded human nature as a cultural construct, another produced thing, Marxism embraced a limitless culture of self-definition and becoming. Our present era is defined by this alliance between the technological Right, where efficiency is the driving force, and which Del Noce called “management techniques in the service of the strongest”, and the intellectual Left, who won the cultural wars in which all forms of power conceal self-interest and domination. This analysis reflects our contemporary reality in which Labour is becoming the party of the educated middle class and the Conservatives are increasingly strong in working-class areas.
Catholicism in Eastern Europe was a very significant force in the rejection of communism. In Poland and Hungary, in particular, there remains a righteous fury against the sins of Stalinism that perhaps defines their post-communist politics. It is impossible to talk about sin with people who renounce the very idea as an impediment to progress and a mask for repression. In Western Europe the story is very different.
It is perhaps the deepest irony that the greatest contribution of Marx to Catholicism was the seriousness with which Catholics took his critique of capitalism and the categories and analysis the Church developed to explain the rerum novarum, these “new things”, and frame them within a democratic and humane vision of the human person flourishing within a community. The greatest achievement of Marx, 200 years since his birth, is the encyclical Centesimus Annus, in which John Paul II developed the most comprehensive and systematic articulation of the categories of Catholic social thought: dead capital against living labour, domination against participation, decentralised democracy against oligarchy, and the inherent dignity of work against an estranged proletarian fate.
The Catholic Church has many reasons to be generous. It could well be that St Benedict has the last laugh.