Leo XIII Knew Socialism Would Fail Because it was Evil

It is generally held that Catholic Social Teaching begins with Pope Leo XIII’s masterly encyclical, Rerum Novarum (1891).  That, as I’ve tried to show, is a dreadful mistake.  Pope Leo considered it his duty to apply to current concerns the constant teaching of the Church and of the word of God.  Like Thomas Aquinas, the study of whose works he promoted vigorously, he would have considered “originality” a vice, not a virtue.

Perhaps we are misled by the title, Rerum Novarum.  In our anti-society of rapacious consumption of the “new” and “improved,” and the unease instilled in us by mass marketers and politicians who cry that if we do not act now we will be lost—“Awake, arise, or be forever fall’n!” cries the Prince of Politicians to his fellow devils in Milton’s hell—we are apt to credit Pope Leo with seeing the light of novelty.  No such thing.  The ancient Romans held the political innovator to be a plague.  Res nova means revolution, and the “spirit of revolutionary change,” rerum novarum spiritus, writes Leo, has been disturbing the nations of the world.

Catholic Social Thought Pt 7What are the elements of this upheaval?  Leo names five: “The vast expansion of industrial pursuits and the marvelous discoveries of science; the changed relations between masters and workmen; the enormous fortunes of some few individuals, and the utter poverty of the masses; the increased self-reliance and closer mutual combination of the working classes; the prevailing moral degeneracy.”  The first is a neutral datum; it is the stage.  The next three are social conditions with deep moral implications.  The fifth is a moral sickness which would, unchecked, vitiate any attempt to solve the problems of the working classes by monetary or juridical means—we might say, by mechanical means.

How did matters come to this pass?  Leo blames the secularism spreading like a contagion from one European nation to the next.  He had made that charge in his earlier encyclicals.  One after another, the institutions that once brought master and workman together have been weakened or destroyed.  The guilds were abolished; Leo will, in his practical recommendations, return again and again to the model of the guild.  For the guilds, founded in the Middle Ages, were social, economic, and religious all at once.  Guildsmen trained the young in their trades; they maintained a high standard of quality; they provided stability in costs and profit; they cared for their invalid members and their widows and orphans; and they united in the worship of God, especially to celebrate their patronal feasts.

The abolition of the guilds, then, was of a piece with laws that “set aside the ancient religion,” leaving nothing between worker and master: “Hence by degrees it has come to pass that workingmen have been surrendered, all isolated and helpless, to the hard-heartedness of employers and the greed of unchecked competition.”  Matters are made all the worse by “rapacious usury, which, although more than once condemned by the Church, is nevertheless, under a different guise, but with the like injustice, still practiced by covetous and grasping men.”  I’m not qualified to comment on the Church’s monetary realism, and the difference she sees between usury and, say, the profit a passive member derives from a joint stock corporation, or the fair price one may charge for opportunities forgone when one lends money to another.  What I want to note is that for Leo, since we are talking about human beings made by God and for God, the misery we cause one another cannot be cordoned off into compartments, one religious and one secular.  Rapacity is a moral issue.  The denigration of the Church is a moral issue.  We are talking about sin.

Now one cannot cure sin by sin.  Our Lord tells us: one cannot cast out devils in the name of Beelzebub.  But this, Leo sees, is what some revolutionaries pretend to do: “To remedy these wrongs the Socialists, working on the poor man’s envy of the rich, are striving to do away with private property, and contend that individual possessions should become the common property of all, to be administered by the State or by municipal bodies” (emphasis mine).  Leo does not condemn Socialism for its practical failure, although he notes—did he board a time-machine to visit Russia and Cuba and what used to be Great Britain?—that “the workingman himself would be among the first to suffer.”  We must see the relationship aright.  Socialism is not evil because it fails.  It fails, because it is evil.  Nor is it justified because unchecked rapacity is evil—the antisocial money-squeezing which Dickens, alike suspicious of socialists, condemned.  One does not hire Belial to fight Beelzebub.

At this point, one might expect Leo to launch into economic analysis, and provide a “solution” to the trouble.  But we must clear away the childishly bad thinking to which we have grown accustomed—our fetish for numbers.  Man is a moral being to the core.  Man is oriented by his nature toward God, with every breath he takes.  We seek not money.  We seek joy.  A life of material comforts and moral indifference is unworthy of man; if the beasts could feel shame, they would be ashamed of that.

Instead the Pope returns to the nature of man.  We work; we exercise our minds, as God commanded us even before the fall.  Man puts himself into his work, and so the reward of his work becomes his own, not the property of the State.  Nor is this property held at the allowance of the State, reverting to the State at his decease.  For, unlike the beasts, he dwells as it were above the current of time: “Man, fathoming by the faculty of reason matters without number, and linking the future with the present, becoming, furthermore, by taking enlightened forethought, master of his on acts, guides his ways under the eternal law and the power of God, whose providence governs all things.”  His deeds, says Leo, “do not die out.”  He makes his own “that portion of nature’s field which he cultivates—that portion on which he leaves, as it were, the impress of his individuality.”  That includes the land itself.

Thus the right of private property is grounded, not in practical economics, but in the theomorphic nature of man.  Are we now ready to consider the State, and laws established for the common good?  By no means.  It’s a symptom of our secular disease that we idolize the untrammeled individual, motivated by one hedonism or another, whether of rapacity or lust, and the State established to adjudicate among the hedonists.  Such a man is less than fully human, and such a State is at once greater than a true state, as a tumor outgrows the organ it supplants, and less than a state, in that it provides at best for a tolerably managed common-evil.

No, we must still consider what man is, but now, man as a social being.  He is made for love.  In particular, he is made for that God-created society, the family.  Unchecked avarice may destroy families by depriving them of the material goods to which the workman rightly lays claim.  But socialism destroys families by denying their very nature, and by usurping their functions: “The contention, then, that the civil government should at its option intrude into and exercise intimate control over the family and the household, is a great and pernicious error.”

Rapacity for wealth is not cured by rapacity for power.  These things, then, are grave violations of Catholic Social Teaching: To proceed as if the child were the ward of the State; to seize from parents the oversight of their children’s education; to intrude the law into the family circle except when that circle has been broken by serious crime; to enact laws that encourage the dissolution of families; to enact laws that discourage the formation of families; to pretend that the basic definition of the family is the prerogative of individuals or the State; to treat monetary issues solely as between an individual and an individual, or an individual and the State, without regard to the family; to seize property from the family at the decease of its head; to relegate religion to the private sphere, so that the State, or the wealthy, or whatever aggregate may wield power, need not concern themselves with it.

More to come.

Anthony Esolen


Professor Esolen is a teaching fellow and writer in residence at Thomas More College of the Liberal Arts, in Merrimack, New Hampshire. Dr. Esolen is a regular contributor to Crisis Magazine and the author of many books, including The Politically Incorrect Guide to Western Civilization (Regnery Press, 2008); Ten Ways to Destroy the Imagination of Your Child (ISI Books, 2010) and Reflections on the Christian Life (Sophia Institute Press, 2013). His most recent books are Reclaiming Catholic Social Teaching (Sophia Institute Press, 2014); Defending Marriage (Tan Books, 2014); Life Under Compulsion (ISI Books, 2015); and Out of the Ashes (Regnery, 2017).

  • Michael Paterson-Seymour

    St Thomas’s teaching on private property is suitably nuanced.

    ““Community of goods is ascribed to the natural law, not that the natural law dictates that all things should be possessed in common and that nothing should be possessed as one’s own: but because the division of possessions is not according to the natural law, but rather arose from human agreement which belongs to positive law, as stated above (57, 2,3). Hence the ownership of possessions is not contrary to the natural law, but an addition thereto devised by human reason.” [ST IIa IIae Q66, II,obj 1]

    This is obvious enough, when we consider that it is law that distinguishes mere possession (which is a physical fact) from ownership (which is a legal right). Thus, Mirabeau, too, was right, when he says, “Property is a social creation. The laws not only protect and maintain property; they bring it into being [elles la font naître]; they determine its scope and the extent that it occupies in the rights of the citizens.”

    That is why, for example, Pope Paul VI could write in Populorum Progressio, “If certain landed estates impede the general prosperity because they are extensive, unused or poorly used, or because they bring hardship to peoples or are detrimental to the interests of the country, the common good sometimes demands their expropriation.”

    • djpala

      Montini, his family & his appointees were all communist or pro-communist !

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  • NormChouinard

    Thank you Professor Esolen, Rerum Novarum is a masterful encyclical and one that I must revisit.

    Chesterton was right. The problem with laissez faire capitalism is that it produces too few capitalists, not too many. His Distributionist principles of subsidiarity and solidarity have been my guide on these matters.

  • JERD

    I am confused. Where is this going? Is Leo saying the State, so long as it exercises its power morally, can make a just society? Or, is he saying that the individual, freed from the power of the State, and through a person’s participation in mediating institutions like the family and guilds, can make a just society by living a life of virtue? Or both? If both, how can that be since it would appear the State and the individual would be in constant conflict?

    • Michael Paterson-Seymour

      Leo XIII gave the answer to that in Immortale Dei: “They, therefore, who rule should rule with even-handed justice, not as masters, but rather as fathers, for the rule of God over man is most just, and is tempered always with a father’s kindness. Government should, moreover, be administered for the well-being of the citizens, because they who govern others possess authority solely for the welfare of the State. Furthermore, the civil power must not be subservient to the advantage of any one individual or of some few persons, inasmuch as it was established for the common good of all… Then, truly, will the majesty of the law meet with the dutiful and willing homage of the people, when they are convinced that their rulers hold authority from God, and feel that it is a matter of justice and duty to obey them, and to show them reverence and fealty, united to a love not unlike that which children show their parents”

  • Alecto

    I enjoy these articles very much, but I do not make the assumption that the industrial age produced a handful of rapacious millionaires (or billionaires) and reduced the rest of society to poverty; at least not here in the U.S. Socialism is predicated on Leo’s assumption of society being composed of fixed strata. From its inception, the U.S. envisioned society as fluid, with each person endowed by our Creator with the rights the European monarchs distributed at their discretion, and the ability to use our talents and potential to change our destiny if we would only work and act in morally responsible ways.

    The structure of our government (as founded, not currently) demands we behave in moral ways because our society collapses if we do not. That our politicians seek to rule us rather than represent us, is evidence not of fundamental weakness with the structure or function of government as conceived, but with the moral dissipation which infects individuals in our society. That is the moral sickness that Catholics can and must address. Good governance comes from good people doing good, seeking to realize their individual potential and gifts.

    • TheodoreSeeber

      The fluid nature of the classes in the United States is largely a myth. When adjusted for inflation, the single largest factor in earning potential over a lifetime is the earning potential of one’s parents. Just because there are no laws formally defining the classes does not mean that they do not exist.

      • Paul Tran

        Sure, there are no laws defining classes but in a God-loving, God-fearing society there should be no classes. Class exists more evidently in a secular society.

        • TheodoreSeeber

          Masonic philosophy is not God fearing. The secular laws and economic system of North America and Europe over the past three centuries has far more influence from the freemasons than anything resembling Christianity.

          • Alecto

            Where are you reading this nonsense? Go to Jamestown and tell me how many Freemasons landed there. Go to any of the early colonies and count the number of Freemasons. If anything, the early settlers and most of the later settlers in the colonies were seeking refuge from oppressive state religion or some kind of religious oppression. For God’s sake, man, have you ever heard of Charles Carroll? He was Catholic. He signed the Declaration of Independence!

            Masonic philosophy is opposed to Catholic teaching because it doesn’t recognize the primacy of any one religion, it is logically absurd because all religions cannot contain the truth. However, I respect masons good works, attempts to improve themselves and society.

            • TheodoreSeeber

              Chales Carroll, had he lived 120 years later, would have been condemned as an Americanist Heretic. Catholicism is the only religion that is necessary. The Majority who signed the Constitution were Masons, their philosophy of rebellion against God is found throuout American Law. The Declaration of Independence was invalidated by Doe Vs Bolton, and the current American government is illegitimate for the lack of defense of 54 million citizens who have been deprived of the right to life. The masonic experiment in democracy has failed.

      • Alecto

        Class may exist in all societies; it is normal for humans to order or categorize themselves, but the United States has traditionally been the home of few, if any barriers to such “class” changes. It isn’t a myth – it’s fact. It is a fact for millions of us. But rest easy – with Obama and the minions from hell at the helm, that has changed.

        I believe there are classes in heaven. There are classes of angels. There are people who are better than me – better than you – better than all of us. We call them saints. The important point is that we all have the ability and the call to improve our lives in tangible and intangible ways.

        • TheodoreSeeber

          In comparison to God, all classes of created beings are equal

  • TheodoreSeeber

    Karl Marx defined the two classes as the bourgeios and the proletariat, and recommended that all men become the proletariat, owning nothing. Pope Leo XIII, later GK Chesterton, and most recently Archbishop Reinhard Marx of Bavaria, all come to the conclusion that we should all be bourgeios. I like the later solution much better; guilds is the way to accomplish it.

    • crakpot

      I agree. The solution to owner-worker conflicts is that everyone owns his own business, not that we all become workers for the state, or “too big to fail” cronies which eventually get absorbed into the state. I think that’s where Romney fell down – he advocated for jobs, not self-employment. People took the government check instead.

    • Alecto

      Why should any one of us accept Marx’s theories about anything? I reject all of them. I do not and will not settle for crumbs from a bounder when Adam Smith, Frederic Bastiat, Milton Friedman and countless others have sound principles and far more interesting and hopeful ideas about society, economics and the nature of prosperity.

      • TheodoreSeeber

        So you are rejecting Karl Marx for a bunch of Libertarians who’s theories are based on Das Kapital, rejecting also Archbishop Reinhard Marx and even Pope Benedict XVI? No wonder you like the Americanists!

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  • Ford Oxaal

    Yes. Family, the strongest of human allegiances, pre-exists society. Society exists for the augmentation of the well-being of the family, not vice versa. The “social contract” is between families, not individuals.

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  • crakpot

    Good article.

    From my understanding, “usury” does not refer to investing your own money, nor even to depositing it in banks for them to loan out, giving you a portion of the interest, provided lending is not monopolized such that “usurious” interest rates could be charged due to the lack of competition. The Parable of the Talents seems to say investment is good, and that even depositing your money with the banks is better than not helping create new wealth at all, provided all is done in the service of God.

    Usury is what central banks, like the Fed, do. Using government monopoly on power, they make a cartel of the banks, such that interest rates can be arbitrarily set without real competition. Worse, they print fake receipts for money that’s not even there, and “loan” them to government to spend as it likes, inflating prices for everyone until the taxpayers can pay these “Federal Reserve Notes” back. It is complicated, and that’s on purpose.

    People can also “get used” by demanding lots of their foreign currency for monopolized local currency, and we know how Jesus felt about money changers.

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  • Marcus

    Socialism may be a failure, but it hasn’t given up.

    • djpala

      Correct, It resides in our White House !

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