The Twilight of Socialism

Pope John Paul II’s attitude toward Socialism should be seen in the context of the Poland and Italy he has known since World War II. As a foreign correspondent for the New York Herald Tribune from the middle 1940’s into the early 1960’s I had occasion to observe much of that.

In the months just after World War II, I arrived in Rome from a United States where Norman Thomas’ Socialist Party never received more than a few percentage points of the American Presidential vote. Socialism was not the American way, nor did I recognize it as necessarily the way of any others. In postwar Italy I found something quite different. Nearly half the voting population was electing Socialism. Socialism was so popular that at least four major political parties were claiming to be the proper Socialists. On the one extreme were the Communists who used the word Socialist more often in their propaganda than they mentioned Communism. Next were the Socialists of Pietro Nenni who denied with some reason that they were outright Communists, yet felt that the only way the “working class” could take power was in a Socialist-Communist alliance.

Further on toward the Right were Giuseppe Saragat’s Socialist Party. They insisted that they were orthodox Socialists, but they added that they were also democrats who believed that the ballot box, not a revolutionary coup d’etat of enduring Communist predilection, was the road to power. Far from disdaining Saragat’s Socialists as Marxist in origin Italy’s huge Christian Democratic Party embraced the Saragatiani as they were called, joined them in a series of coalition governments, and gave them important ministries such as the Ministry of the Interior, the police ministry.

The Christian Democratic (Catholic) party itself was a coalition of many elements, some of them strongly Socialist in sympathies.

What about the capitalists? Seminarians of many nations, and visiting bishops, had far to look for them in the Italy of the late 1940’s and 1950’s. The hard core capitalist party called itself the “Liberals”, meaning that they believed in liberty, in free enterprise. They did only a bit better in postwar Italy than Norman Thomas customarily did in the United States. If by capitalists you meant the large land owners of Italy, families with miles of agricultural lands cheek by jowl with poverty-ridden villages populated by sharecroppers, there was not a voice raised in their defense. One of the first acts of the Christian Democratic-Saragatiani coalition, warmly approved by the Nenniani and the Communists, was to break up the great estates, parceling out the property among the day laborers who had worked them formerly.

Far from being a dirty word, “Socialism” was largely the logic of much of the Italy known by the postwar seminarians and visiting churchmen. Italy, under basically Christian Democratic rule, was seeking a benign mixture of economic freedom and welfarism. To many of the politicians of Western Europe this involved no embarrassment inside a military alliance with the United States. As France’s one-time premiere, Pierre Mendes-France, liked to point out, the capitalist-socialist mixture was a European version of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal.

That was one glimpse of Socialism the future John Paul II had on his sojourns in postwar Italy. Another view of Socialism was what he had in his home city of Krakow in Poland. I visited there at the time of the Polish national elections of 1957. The government asked for a rousing vote in favor of Communism but what impressed me was the argument that was used: if you don’t like Communism keep in mind that we are on the Soviet border — tell us how to move Poland to some other corner of the map!

Hungary had just exploded against the Soviet occupation. Poland was in a state of extreme agitation. If Poland were to follow the Hungarian example and the Russian tanks were to crush the rebellion as I had seen it done in Budapest, what would prevent a chain reaction setting off an East German revolt and a third brutal repression? And if Russians slew East Germans what would guarantee that West Germans would not cross in to defend blood brothers? The fear of World War III was in the air.

In that Poland of early 1957 I could not believe what I saw. Cardinal Wyszinski, once a Communist prisoner, was making parish visits. I attended one such service. The congregation sang with fervor I have never seen elsewhere. The religious hymns sounded like the most passionate of patriotic anthems, the desperation of a proud people under Russian Communist occupation.

I visited Krakow, the home area of the future pope. To avoid a repetition of the Hungarian explosion a period of freedom of expression had been decreed by the government. I lunched in a former Polish aristocratic club with a local editor and marveled at the fury with which he denounced “Stalinist-type” wrongdoing in Poland. My interlocutor was the editor of the local Communist daily.

I travelled just outside Krakow to the model steel mill city of Nowa Huta where a worker rebellion had forced the creation of a local parish church. In the steel mill, laborers crowded around me to damn the Soviets for raping Poland of her coal and other raw materials while sending shoddy products in exchange. Huge photos of local Communist leaders had covered the walls until recently when they had all been torn down, the workers said. I could not believe my ears and was sure that inside this Communist state I was involved in an entrapment, that the cries of these laborers were a put-on, and that spies of the Communist government surely were in the throng if not orchestrating it as grounds for my expulsion from the country. It was Solidarity aborning and, I admit, I missed it. I could not believe that the hatred of Soviet Communism could be so intense inside the home nation of the Warsaw Pact.

These then are the different faces of what European Communists like to call “Socialism”. The Soviet brand, we can be sure, is one Pope John Paul II never will countenance. At the very least Polish nationalism cannot accept a Russian export delivered implicitly by the Red Army. But what about Saragat or Mendes-France Socialism? What about the “Socialism” of the Christian Democratic left? If the choice is huge landed estates on the one hand and hopeless sharecropping on the other, one can be sure that John Paul II will not be “capitalist”.


  • Barrett McGurn

    Barrett McGurn lived eighteen years in Rome first as a New York Herald Tribune correspondent, then as the press attaché of the United States Embassy. He was media spokesman for the Supreme Court of the United States from 1973 to 1982 and after that a free lance writer and lecturer. He passed away in 2010.

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