The Twilight of Socialism

Gregory Baum would convince us that Pope John Paul II is a socialist. But trying to force the present Pope into a neat category is a waste of time for the simple reason that the Pope has been seeking, throughout his intellectual life, to perceive complex matters more profoundly and more originally capitalist) allow. This is why he was attracted to phenomenology, a method of description intended (if this is possible) to cut below the old distinctions. To the extent the Pope has addressed socio-political-economic issues, he has tried to find a fresh approach to the fundamentals. He does not pretend to be an economist, political philosopher, or social commentator. He seeks simply to draw the thoughtful attention of men of good will to certain basic human needs and to exhort us to get our priorities straight. To seek to build from his insights and comments any sort of “ism,” any elaborate system of socio-political analysis is to distort his intentions and to force his thought into molds where it does not belong.

It is also important not to exaggerate the Pope’s innovations. His intentions clearly lie in the direction of perpetuating the Church’s teaching of principle in these areas. Thus he both reaffirms the Church’s conviction that private property is a fundamental right of man and a most valuable protection of individual’s status vis a vis the powerful state. And at the same time he reminds us that property is a stewardship, and hence no one has an absolute right to the possession of anything: Property is placed under the individual’s control so that he may exercise his judgment on how it may be used for the common good. Like his predecessors, Pope John Paul II is worried about the crushing power of the central state. He too advocates the strengthening of “subsidiary institutions” which can act as a buffer. For the same reason, he is worried that authoritarian central planning will lead to loss of freedom. And he shares with all the Popes since Leo XIII the same fear, one directed at the heart of industrialization, that the immense productive machine will swallow up man, its maker, turning him into a mere function in the process rather than serving him. Pope John Paul II is not breaking new ground in Church social teaching when he emphasizes the importance of participation, but he has gone farther than previous Pontiffs in explaining what it might entail.

Does one have to be a “socialist” to advocate that workers should have a stake in their enterprises and that they should participate as full partners in the decision- making that occurs in the enterprise? I think not. Many people of the left, who would call themselves “socialist,” advocate participation. But then so too do some fervent advocates of “entrepreneurial capitalism.” And as a matter of fact, one finds some of the most impressive examples both of worker participation in equity and worker participation in work-place decision making in the so called “capitalist” countries. Many of the dynamic “high tech” companies in the U.S. stress both employee stock ownership and much participation in decision making on the level where the employee’s experience is relevant. Incidentally, genuine stock ownership, which brings with it the right to vote on management, the right to sell if one is displeased, and the right to a share in profits is often a much realer ownership than the kind of industrial democracy scheme in which the workers are represented by union leaders who frequently manage to control all the power.

The central concern raised by the Pope in his recent letter, Laborem Exercens, the problem of making the productive machine serve man rather than the reverse, is a perennial issue for anyone concerned that work enhance man’s existence rather than degrade him. The Pope’s concerns are not “socialist,” they are social, and they would be shared by any Christian worthy of the name. The Pope says nothing that can mislead anyone into thinking there are any easy solutions to this problem, nor does he maintain that “participation” is a magic solution without problems of its own. What he does say, in forceful terms, is that the capital-owning class, management, engineers, and workers are all part of the same enterprise, they need one another, and hence cooperation and not confrontation should be the model for a modern society. Once again the Pontiff follows his predecessors in explicitly condemning the socialist class-warfare model. This is not to deny the existence of tensions, of differing interests, and of abuses of power. But the Pope explicitly denies that some kind of inevitable conflict is necessarily built into our society, which can only lead to violent clashes. On the contrary, he places confidence in the ability of humans to learn and to behave responsibly.

Laborem Exercens unfortunately repeats one mistake which can also be found in at least two earlier Church documents, Populorum Progressio of Paul VI and the Final Document from the meeting of Latin American bishops at Puebla. Once again a highly centralized communist socialism is contrasted with a laissez faire “liberalism,” in a “pox on both your houses” attitude. The problem with that is that while the authoritarian centralized state capitalism in fact exists in the Soviet bloc, there exists nowhere the kind of laissez faire capitalism with which the Church Fathers contrast it. The Western democracies are all social welfare states, business is highly regulated, and the governments take a strong steering role in the economy. The underdeveloped countries are not “laissez faire” either, but usually closely held, tightly controlled oligarchies. This comparing of a real menace with an imaginary model is misleading. If one means by “capitalism” this kind of laissez faire liberalism, then the Pope is most emphatically not a capitalist either, but then neither is any government of an O.E.C.D. country!

It will require much ingenuity and experimentation, in an atmosphere of humanity and realism, to make substantial progress in putting man ahead of productive machine, without killing the goose who is laying the badly needed golden egg. Upon the prosperity of the developed world depends the continued rapid progress of the developing world. We must not be daunted by temporary blocks to the improved distribution of the fruits of this highly productive machine to those who most need them. The productive machine must not be undermined, and yet the workers in it, including the often harried managers, must be given the opportunity to improve their working life. That is the dilemma Pope John Paul II sees and approaches with imagination and sensitivity. It is unfortunate when ideologues try to twist what he has said in so balanced and nuanced a fashion to fit into their own simplistic models of development. No, the Pope is not a “socialist,” he is not a “capitalist,” he is a pastor recalling all of us to a confrontation with the great problems of our time.

  • Thomas Langan

    Thomas Langan was a member of the Department of Philosophy at St. Michael's College in The University of Toronto. He passed away in 2012.

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