The Twilight of Socialism

Any high school debater knows that his first job is to define the terms of the resolution he has to debate. In this case, everyone knows who this pope is, but what is a “socialist”? As I have tried to come up with a simple definition, I have been more and more impressed with the difficulty of this question.

What socialism was is clear enough: it was “ownership of the means of production by the workers”. The problem with that definition today is that the United States — is quite close to being socialist under its terms. Peter Drucker pointed out in his book The Unseen Revolution that in the mid-1970’s about 40% of the capital equity was owned by pension funds of workers and the self-employed and the proportion was steadily rising so that it would be over 50% by 1985. Such “indirect” worker ownership — as also through individual ownership of stock by working people — seems perfectly compatible with what is described as “capitalism”.

If the definition of socialism is modified to “ownership of the means of production by the workers through the state, with centralized planning” problems still remain. While this fits Russia — the preeminent “socialist” states — and excludes the United States — the preeminent capitalist country — it excludes Sweden too, which is also widely regarded as socialist. As a matter of fact, it would probably exclude most countries run by Socialist parties, which typically nationalize some of the larger industries, but not necessarily even most of those. Not the least significant reason for the dearth of socialist nations by this definition is the experience of the archetype, Russia — an experience of the incompatibility of such ownership and basic freedoms — and also the overwhelming evidence of its economic inefficiency — such governments simply do not prosper as do ones dominated by some form of private ownership. (The latter fact is a vindication of one ground for the strong traditional Church teaching on the right of private property).

Nor is it altogether clear that worker management of industries is the defining characteristic of socialisms. It exists widely in some socialism (e.g., Sweden, West Germany) but not in others (Russia, Eastern Europe). In principle, if it is not mandated by law, it could easily come about within an economic system such as that of the United States. (If it has not been a major issue in the U.S., that is probably because workers and unions in America have been more concerned with securing higher wages and benefits than with participation in management decisions).

Perhaps it would be better to start simply by asking what principles of economic life the Pope stands for. Here is a list of some of them:

1. The priority of human labor (the labor of the “worker” AND of owners and managers) over capital (the accumulated perfected resources and technology inherited from previous generations of human work to be used as instruments of further work to serve human needs);

2. The priority of the worker as the SUBJECT of work over the material results of the production process: that is, the priority of what human beings become through their work over what they make or get done through their work;

3. The right to private property (even when it is a question of the means of production), but subordinated to the right to common use of the goods of the whole of creation, which are meant for everyone — contrary to both Marxist collectivism and to the absolute and untouchable form of private property rights of capitalism or liberalism; government ownership of means of production is permissible in some exceptional circumstances, however;

4. The desirability of associating the worker with the ownership of capital and with the management of economic enterprises, “through a wide range of intermediate bodies with economic, social, and cultural purposes”;

5. The obligation of “the indirect employer” (especially the State, but also others who shape work contracts and labor relationships without being the direct employer) to make provision for overall planning of a society’s economic and cultural life; this does not mean one-sided centralization, however, but just and rational coordination safeguarding the initiatives of individuals, free groups, and local work centers and complexes; (the latter proviso suggests to me that the market will often be a useful tool);

6. The duty and right to work, for those capable of it;

7. The right to life and subsistence;

8. The need for education to develop mature human beings and also to prepare people to take a place in the world of work;

9. The right to just remuneration, either through a family wage or through a wage plus family allowances of some kind;

10. The right to social benefits for workers and their families, especially the ready availability of health care, the right to rest (regularly weekly — at least Sunday — and a longer period or periods of vacation), and the right to a pension, old-age and accident insurance;

11. The right to a working environment which is not harmful to workers’ physical health or moral integrity;

12. The right of association, especially to form labor or trade unions to defend the workers’ vital interests but also including professional organizations and employers’ associations), such association must be viewed not as instruments of class struggle or group egoism, but as constructive factors of social order and solidarity; unions should be protected in their right to strike, as an extreme means, but this weapon must not be abused for political purposes or without regard to essential community services. There are other rights the Pope discusses in Laborem Exercens which cannot be dealt with here; rights in international economic relations and rights of particular groups (agriculture, the disabled, migrants). This brief summary should suffice for our purposes, however.

Crucial to an understanding of this list is the notion of “right”. It seems to me that in the Church’s social teachings rights must not be understood as immediate moral demands without regard to the limitations imposed by circumstances. Economic life is extraordinarily complex and there is no easy way to secure all of the above rights. For example, the Church teaches that there is a right to a living wage, but employers in setting wages must take into consideration other factors: the condition of the business and the requirements of the common good (Pius XI Quadraqesimo Anno 63-75). What a just wage is, in concrete situations, is often different to discern.

At the same time, the fact that economic life involves “trade-offs” and that it is not possible to secure all that is desirable immediately, does not remove the serious moral obligation to move in the direction of achieving a more just economic system as far as the circumstances allow. Different people will have different ideas of what is possible and how to achieve it — there are no economic dogmas — and the Church acknowledges and defends this diversity. But it also demands that these diverse views be sincere attempts to realize the general moral principles which provide the framework of economic life.

Given the principles which the Pope stands for, is it appropriate to call him a “socialist”? I do not think so — any more than I think it would be appropriate to call him a “capitalist”. I think it is clear that he agrees with some of the socialist criticisms of capitalism (not because they are socialist but because they are true): that in capitalist economic systems, workers are too often reduced to “production factors”, that the effect of work on the personal development of the worker is too often subordinated to the “external” result of the work (goods and services, production and profit), that the right to private property is too often separated from the right to common use of the goods of the earth which it is meant to facilitate, that it fosters excessive individualism and too readily legitimates an excessive desire for personal material well-being. It is also clear that he thinks that some of these apply to socialism and that he agrees with some of the capitalist criticisms of socialism: that socialist economic systems can just as readily reduce men to production factors and ignore the priority of the “subjective” dimension of work and foster materialism, that individual and group initiative are often stifled by bureaucratic centralization, that the right to private property is excessively limited.

How much would the distinctive economic institutions of capitalism have to be changed to meet the demands of the moral principles governing economic life according to the pope? I do not know. I am sure that a change of spirit could greatly transform the practice of capitalism without changing its fundamental institutions (especially private property, and the market as the chief determinant in the allocation of society’s resources — as these exist in a modified form today). A society of capitalists who were also dedicated Christians could certainly elevate persons over things more effectively. It is difficult, however, to know how much change would still be necessary. Perhaps more importantly, it is difficult to know how much the spirit of our present economic system could be transformed — made less individualistic, less materialistic, more “personalist”, more communitarian (without being collectivist) — without changes in its institutional features, since spirit and institutions are deeply intertwined.

Probably the same thing could be said of socialism. In some real sense, the truth about economic life does seem to be somewhere in between the two ideologies: capitalism with a healthy dose of moderate socialism’s “ideals” (its sensitivity to the worker and its communitarian emphasis) and socialism with a healthy dose of moderate capitalism’s ideals — (its openness to and stimulation of individual and group initiative) would each be improved. And, in fact, the historical development of capitalism and socialism has modified each in the direction of the other. How to achieve a via media between the two, what it would be, whether and in what “sense” it would be closer to one than to the other remains to be seen.

So — no, the Pope is not a socialist. He is not a capitalist. He is not an economist or politician. He is the voice of Christ and His Church, Mater et Magistra — Mother and Teacher — for men of all political and economic systems.


  • Christopher Wolfe

    From 1989 to 2021, Dr. Wolfe was President of the American Public Philosophy Institute, an interdisciplinary group of scholars from various universities, supported by local business and professional leaders, that promotes a natural law public philosophy rooted in the principles of the American Founding. The APPI is now the Dallas Forum for Law, Politics, and Culture, and Dr. Wolfe is President Emeritus. He also is one of Crisis Magazine's original writers.

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