The Twilight of Socialism

The very question “is the Pope a socialist?” helps to reveal the intellectual slipperiness that characterizes the socialist movement.

For, confronted with numerous societies which call themselves socialist — Soviet Russia, Red China, Castro’s Cuba, Idi Amin’s Uganda — dedicated socialists reject the validity of the label. Socialism, it turns out, requires some very rigorous and precise conditions, none of which these lamented countries satisfy. (The same can be said about Western democracies like Great Britain and Sweden, depending on how the socialist experiment in those places happens to look at a particular moment.)

However, when they are drumming up support for what they insist is still a marvelous idea, socialists are prone to claiming any of history’s heroes who can be momentarily pressed into service, from Plato through Thomas More to John Paul II.

The proposition that the current Pontiff is a socialist rests on nothing more substantial than the fact that he does not support an uncompromising free-enterprise capitalism. That fact is hardly surprising. Indeed, were the reverse true, given the history of both the Papacy and the Catholic Church, it would itself be rather astounding. If, therefore, those like John Paul II, who view modern economic systems, including capitalism, with a certain reserve are to be called socialists, it must be that the Catholic Church has always been socialist and that socialism is an age-old system having nothing to do with modern movements. By such a definition even the Egyptian pharaohs could be claimed for it.

Laborem Exercens has excited some Marxists because of the central importance which it gives to work. But this is quite explicitly a spiritualized and even “subjective” (the Pope’s own word) concept of work, which can hardly be satisfying to any hard-core socialist. It is this understanding of work — as a sharing in God’s own act of creation — which allows John Paul to give labor priority over capital but at the same time to reject the class struggle and all forms of materialism or “economism.”

Since socialists have never been able to agree on what their system should look like in practice, it is difficult to say how far the Pope’s firm strictures against “collectivism” apply. However, even democratic forms of socialism, such as in Great Britain, tend ultimately towards restraints on traditional liberties which people find irksome. (Thus it appears that in Britain the experiment with democratic socialism is over, at least for the foreseeable future.)

Laborem Exercens cannot be understood apart from Familiaris Consortio. In the latter document John Paul makes observations about the problems of the modern family which would not be unwelcome to members of the Moral Majority, and he even calls for a kind of “family politics.” No modern socialist state, no matter how ostensibly democratic, has been able to avoid meddling in the affairs of the family, something of which John Paul is undoubtedly well aware.

So also Laborem Exercens cannot be understood in isolation from Dives in Misericordia. There the Pope specifically argues that the goal of a good society cannot rely on justice alone, which causes movements for change to become rigid and distorted. This is precisely the historical record of socialism, and surely no true socialist would accept the Pontiff’s substitution of the ideal of mercy.

Michael Novak has written at length about the Catholic Church’s lack of enthusiasm for modern capitalism. He is historically correct, but the conclusions he draws are often unwarranted. No one can or should expect the Church simply to bless existing economic systems. If refusing to do so is socialism, then most of us, including John Paul II, are like Moliere’s bourgeoise gentleman — speaking prose all our lives without knowing it.


  • James Hitchcock

    James Hitchcock is Professor of History at St. Louis University. He is the author of many books including The Supreme Court and Religion in American Life (Princeton) and, most recently, The History of the Catholic Church: From the Apostolic Age to the Third Millennium (Ignatius, 2012).

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