While certain insights may be gleaned from a study of Marx’s work, it is impossible not to notice the shrill, ungenerous “know-it-all” streak marring Marxist thinking. Where Saint Thomas Aquinas ended his life with a mystical realization of how far the glory of God exceeds human reason, Marx to the very end gave the impression of believing himself the end-all, be-all of human thought, the Oedipus who had personally unraveled the riddle of history.
What is a feature for the ideologue is a bug in the Christian philosopher. The latter submits to reality, while the former cannot even in principle acknowledge a higher Truth against which his own little truths might be measured.
So it bears repeating that even if the Church recognizes problems with free market ideology, it also deems the socialist movement to be an “emphatically unjust” one, a surrogate religion tainted with “the poor man’s envy of the rich,” in the words of Leo XIII. As the same pope made clear in Rerum Novarum, socialism’s greatest strength lay not so much in the doctrine itself, but in the abuses and wrongs which aggravated the resentments upon which socialism fed. Hence,
some opportune remedy must be found quickly for the misery and wretchedness pressing so unjustly on the majority of the working class, for the ancient workingmen’s guilds were abolished in the last century, and no other protective organization took their place. Public institutions and the laws set aside the ancient religion. Hence, by degrees it has come to pass that working men have been surrendered, isolated and helpless, to the hardheartedness of employers and the greed of unchecked competition. The mischief has been increased by rapacious usury, which, more than once condemned by the Church, is nevertheless, under a different guise, but with like injustice, still practiced by covetous and grasping men. (par 3)
Again, the fact that such remarks would today be taken as “socialism-adjacent” says less about Leo’s mind than it does about the muddled state of the 21st-century American mind. There is nothing socialist about professional guilds, religious influence in the public square, or ethical limits upon moneylending. Just because we want a society that has a marketplace does not mean we must accept a society which is a marketplace.
Indeed, as a spiritual document Rerum Novarum critiques Marxism far more deeply than do Economist editorials, for the latter pointedly ignore the anthropological issues at stake in favor of amoral, utilitarian judgments about productivity. As if the real problem with socialism is simply that it fails to deliver on its utopian promise of allowing man to safely and comfortably stuff his face forever. Pope Leo, being a student of human nature who recognized the value of man’s interdependence vis-a-vis his neighbor, observed how there “naturally exist among mankind manifold differences of the most important kind; people differ in capacity, skill, health, strength; and unequal fortune is a necessary result of unequal condition. Such unequality is far from being disadvantageous either to individuals or to the community” (par 17).
In Leo’s view, those differences in skill, health, strength, and fortune which so offend the egalitarian are natural and salutary, perhaps even conducive to our salvation, and thus Catholics must reject
the notion that class is naturally hostile to class, and that the wealthy and the working men are intended by nature to live in mutual conflict. So irrational and so false is this view that the direct contrary is the truth. Just as the symmetry of the human frame is the result of the suitable arrangement of the different parts of the body, so in a State is it ordained by nature that these two classes should dwell in harmony and agreement, so as to maintain the balance of the body politic. Each needs the other: capital cannot do without labor, nor labor without capital. (par 19)
A classless society is both impossible and undesirable, for “all striving against nature is in vain.” Needless to say, Leo’s sentiments are diametrically opposed to Marx’s belief that “the history of all hitherto existing society” is nothing more nor less than “the history of class struggles” that is predestined to culminate in a revolution rendering all previous understandings of human nature obsolete.
At the same time, we may also note how Leo’s response to socialism differs from that of the mainstream “conservative” establishment, which hails capitalism in reverential tones, as if it were the holy finger of God Himself and thus beyond criticism. Indeed, were we unwise enough to heed Fox News we would think it is the Communist Party USA rather than billionaires such as Bill Gates, George Soros, and Jeff Bezos who have done the most to promote LGBTQ doctrines; we would think it is Communist China rather than companies including Johnson & Johnson, Costco, L’Oreal, and Pepsi that have subsidized Black Lives Matter, welcomed the redefinition of the family, and promoted the strangulation of small businesses via COVID lockdowns.
The cold hard reality is that “woke capitalism” is a very real thing, and as a descriptor of Big Business the adjective “woke” becomes increasingly redundant with each passing day.
Even if it weren’t, a multibillion-dollar tech company capable of influencing national elections hardly warrants the same protections and consideration as do a locally-owned restaurant, an independent mechanic’s garage, or a hundred-acre family farm. While the evils of government micromanagement are obvious, it is likewise obvious that according unfettered power to transnational corporations has led to an ever-increasing dehumanization, especially among the working class.
Where neoconservatives and democratic capitalists blithely ignore or even deny this dehumanization of the lower orders, Marx’s “solution” boils down to a campaign for dehumanizing everybody. So market liberalism and socialism alike reflect a flawed understanding of human nature. While the open-minded Catholic in search of answers can and should engage other traditions, he must always begin – and end – with his own.
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