Our Tradition: The Associative Principle in Political Economy

The temptation which arises from old socialist concepts is that of granting primacy to economic technique, and by the same token of tending to entrust everything to the power of the State, administrator of the welfare of all, and to its scientific and bureaucratic machinery; which obviously, whether we will or no, leads in the direction of a totalitarianism with a technocratic base. It is not this sort of rationalism of mathematical organization which ought to inspire the work of reconstruction, but rather a practical and experimental wisdom attentive to human ends and means. Thus the idea of planned economy should be replaced by a new idea, based upon the progressive adjustment due to the activity and the reciprocal tension of the autonomous agencies grouping producers and consumers from the bottom up; in such a case it would be better to say adjusted economy than planned economy.

Likewise, the idea of “collectivization” should be replaced by that of “associative” ownership of the means of production, or of joint ownership of the enterprise. Aside from certain areas of altogether general interest, whose transformation into public services is to be expected, it is an associative system substituting, as far as possible, joint ownership for the wage system, that, in such a conception and in what above all concerns the industrial level, ought to take the place of the capitalist regime. The working personnel would thus participate in the management of the undertaking, for which, from another point of view, modern technical progress allows the hope of a certain decentralization. When I speak of the associative form of industrial ownership, I am thinking of an association of persons (management-technicians, workers, investors) entirely different from the associations of capital which the idea of joint ownership might suggest under the present regime. And I am thinking of an association of persons in which the joint ownership of the private enterprise, itself enmeshed in an organized “community of labor,” would be the guarantee of the “worker’s title” which we discussed above, and would have as its result the formation and the development of a common patrimony.

The temptation which comes from old concepts formerly in favor in certain Christian circles is the temptation of paternalism, which tends to make the improvement of the working class dependent on the initiative of the management and on its authority as the head of the family aware of its duties to its children. Such a conception tends to treat the worker as a minor, and opposes in the most radical manner that consciousness of the social dignity and the rights of the working person which I have so greatly stressed.

Another temptation is that of “corporatism,” considered as a means of abolishing the class struggle without going beyond the limits of the capitalist economy. Those who yield to this temptation are carried towards State corporatism, which is contrary to Catholic principles and which in itself, whether we will or no, leads the way to fascism, to a political totalitarianism used to preserve for the so-called possessing classes, not their freedom or even their possessions, but at least their privileges of authority. The notion of “corporation” or rather of vocational body, as presented by Pope Pius XI in one of his encyclicals [Quadragesimo Anno (1931)], is itself completely free from these connotations. But the very word “corporation” has been so deformed and corrupted by the use that the fascist States have made of it, turning it into a synonym for “organ of the State” at the service of totalitarian interests, that it is better to replace it by another word, for example, “community of labor” or “production group.” And the essential, in any event, is to understand that any reorganization of economy on a structural and cooperative principle must be conceived as establishing itself from below upwards, according to the principles of personalist democracy, with the suffrage and active personal participation of all the interested parties at the bottom, and as emanating from them and their free unions and associations. In opposition to any dictatorship of a corporatist, paternalist or collectivist State, freedom of groups and of associations of a rank inferior to the State, their institutionally recognized quality as moral persons, and even a certain power of jurisdiction granted to each one within its own limits, must be considered as a primordial condition of the transition to an authentically humanist regime

From Jacques Maritain, The Rights of Man and Natural Law (1949).

Jacques Maritain


Jacques Maritain (1882 – 1973) was a French Catholic philosopher. Raised as a Protestant, he converted to Catholicism in 1906. An author of more than 60 books, he helped to revive St. Thomas Aquinas for modern times and is a prominent drafter of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Pope Paul VI presented his "Message to Men of Thought and of Science" at the close of Vatican II to Maritain, his long-time friend and mentor. Maritain's interest and works spanned many aspects of philosophy, including aesthetics, political theory, philosophy of science, metaphysics, the nature of education, liturgy and ecclesiology.