The Twilight of Socialism

In addressing the question whether John Paul II is “the first socialist Pope,” as Kenneth Woodward wrote in Newsweek, with more than a touch of wishful thinking, I want to stress that the word “socialism” denotes a pattern of ideas far more extensive than a mere economic system. In his book The Socialist Phenomenon the Soviet mathematician Igor Shafarevich points out that a recognizable cluster of political prescriptions has appeared and reappeared throughout history: the abolition of property, family and religion, and a concurrent obsession with equality. This, he says, is the socialist phenomenon.

Because this cluster of ideas has reappeared so often, with the same components always present, it must correspond to some fundamental, ineradicable state of the soul of man. It is my impression that this “state” is one of rebellion against God’s creation: an intense, burning desire (“vision” in modern socialist parlance) for a different world inhabited by “new man.” Socialism promises, so far without any success, to “construct” such a new world and a new man.

The Gnostic heresy of the early Christian centuries was a remarkable pre-echo of contemporary socialism. The Gnostic hope was to abolish ecclesiastical hierarchy, thus leaving the individual standing in a unique (as is currently said, “authentic”) relationship to God. If the heresy had prevailed, all authority would soon have disappeared. Relativism — the offshoot of extreme individualism — would have rapidly displaced doctrine. In current parlance, everyone would have been free to do his or her own thing, and this solipsism would have been experienced (briefly) by each individual as “liberation.”

Just as the West today is “gripped” by socialist ideas (as Shafarevich observes), so the Gnostic heresy has made a virulent reappearance within the Catholic Church. The contemporary obsession with obliterating sex differences, the resistance to ecclesiastical hierarchy and authority, the use of secular garb by “liberated” nuns and priests, the emphasis on “diversity” and regionally autonomous services, are only some of the Gnostic manifestations. Likewise, in secular life, there is currently a tremendous effort underway to force the individual to stand in the same relationship to the state as, in the Gnositc arrangement, he stands to God: alone, unaided by the intervening structures of property and family. {Intervening structures in the church include not only the clerical hierarchy but the Sacraments, especially confession, incense, crucifixes and so — all the things the modern Gnostics want to abolish.)

If by socialism we mean this more extensive pattern of ideas — the antinornian, Gnostic rebellion or our time — then the Pope not only is not a socialist but is perhaps the world’s leading opponent of socialism.

What about socialism considered simply as an economic doctrine? Does Woodward have a point here? My impression is that even here he is more misleading than informative. It is true that John Paul II has made some ambiguous comments about economics. What is one to make, for example, of: “Work is made ‘for man’, not man ‘for work’ ?” Woodward calls this a “moral principle” which “has challenged both capitalists and Marxists.”

First, the Pope is stressing {and one hopes that our trade union leaders are listening) the spiritual value of work. So far so good. In the second clause he seems to be adding that workers should not be exploited. Since the coercion of workers occurs today only in such slave states as. the Soviet Union, and since workers from all over the world pour into the United States, the injunction not to exploit workers has today rather more relevance for socialists than capitalists. The Pope is on the side of the workers? Well, fine. I am sure he realizes just how much better off, and better treated, are workers in capitalist economies than they are, for example, in his native Poland.

What, I would like to know, is Woodward’s warrant for saying the Pope supports “some combination of central planning and democracy in the workplace”? The endorsement of central planning seems to be a mistake on Woodward’s part. In Laborem Exercens the Pope warns specifically against the potential abuse of power when property is seized and authority over it is transferred to the state. Governments often have “a monopoly of the administration and disposal of the means of production”, the Pope warns, and they do not “refrain from offending basic human rights.” It was not the present Pope but rather Paul VI in Populorum Progressio who said: “It pertains to the public authorities to choose, even to lay down, the objectives to be pursued . . .” Now that’s central planning. I do not believe the present Pope has endorsed it at all.

The most serious error that any religious leader can make is to harp on material differentials and invidious comparisons, thereby stirring up envy and resentment among targeted groups and nations allegedly victimized by other groups and nations. Here again there had been quite a change since the papacy of Paul VI, some of whose letters unfortunately did contain passages seemingly calculated to arouse either guilt or envy or both. One or two of these missives might almost have been drafted by the Multinational Study Group of some leftist think tank in the Dupont Circle area of Washington D.C.

John Paul II, by contrast, stresses that a working man deserves to be paid enough to establish and maintain a family. The fact that someone else is paid a lot more is neither here nor there. Admittedly, the Pope adds, this remuneration can be through such “social measures” as “family allowances or grants to mothers devoting themselves exclusively to their families.” Still, the Pope’s proposals here are hardly socialist by comparison with current U.S. law. I wonder how he would feel about AFDC, the federal welfare program which makes mothers eligible for payments only if their husbands leave them?

Woodward’s case, as applied to John Paul II, is weak to non-existent. But it would have had some validity if applied to Paul VI.

Tom Bethell


Tom Bethell is a senior editor at the American Spectator. A graduate of Trinity College, Oxford, he is the author of several books including Noblest Triumph: Property and Prosperity through the Ages (1998); The Politically Incorrect Guide to Science (2005); and Eric Hoffer: The Longshoreman Philosopher (2012).