If you haven’t heard by now, the Jesuit-run magazine America ran an article in praise of Communism (and a rather weak defense of its publication). There have been plenty of decent reactions. Being a fledgling scholar of socialist and Communist thought, here is a bit of what I’ve learned during the past few months in my deep dive into that world which could help the discussion… I welcome any corrections or criticisms in the comments.
- If Marx were alive today, he would recognize no country on Earth as having achieved Communism. He would likewise recognize no major political party as Communist upon close inspection, including those which describe themselves as such. Any country with a “state,” with private property, with wage labor, or even simply with currency, would not qualify as Communist. And any party which is not explicitly – and sincerely – working toward this goal would not be truly Communist in the classical sense. Opportunistic power-grabs which use the language of Communism and impose an indefinite program of state-capitalism through authoritarian collectivization, whatever they are, are not what Marx had in mind. It could and should be argued that any kind of large-scale collectivization and planning is doomed (see Hayek), that Marx left some troubling ambiguities about the process of socialization and its final product (especially regarding the usage of words like “socialization” and “state”) which is in part what opens the door to such misunderstandings or willful manipulations on the part of his early disciples, and that the foundations of Marx’s economic diagnoses were flawed (they were)… But what he cannot be fairly charged with is designing what is popularly thought of as “Communism.” Instead, what he must be charged with is proposing something which is not reachable or is not worth trying to reach, either due to what must happen to get there, or due to the goal’s intrinsic undesirability.
- No serious economist today is a classical Marxist, if for no other reason than that several prophecies of Marx’s did not come to pass. The middle class did not disappear. The age of the factory came and went without the revolution, and the revolution does not seem in sight anymore. The increased aggregation of capital has not tended to yield perpetual decreases in profit margins. This is to leave aside all theoretical questions about Marx’s version of the “labor theory of value,” which is integral to his moral critique of capitalism as being exploitative in itself, in addition to his scientific or deterministic predictions which rely on his labor theory of value. So all of this calls into question the legitimacy of the project, at least as expressed by its chief proponent.
- That project’s historical foundations are deeply at odds with Christianity in their basic philosophical and anthropological commitments. The dialectical materialism of the classical Communists sets up human nature in place of Hegel’s evolving God (a theory enunciated first by Feuerbach)… Through various stages of mass economic development and conflict, humanity evolves to a perfect state. This process is altogether unavoidable (“scientific,” not “utopian”), and it ends with Communism. There countless problems with this from a Christian point of view; and ironically, the atheistic determinism, violent tactics, and Pelagian ethos rob Communist life of its possibility; that possibility is best actualized in religious life, where the wall primarily prevents one from getting in, not getting out, and where the love of a transcendent God Who heals an otherwise stable and broken human nature animates all work. This should give us real pause.
- If there had been a successful global Communist revolution near the end of the 19th century as had been predicted by so many, we can assume safely that the age of innovation was over. The “glut” of capitalist production was seen as overwhelming at the time… We had everything we needed to relax and enjoy life, at last! And since innovation would no longer be rewarded by the accrual of wealth, it stands to reason that it would have been either only for the sake of making work easier (not necessarily more productive, but easier), altruism, or it would be done on accident. Consider what things we take for granted today that were not yet invented or mass-produced in the 1890’s. We would have been essentially stuck in that age had the revolution happened and innovation effectively ceased. What great innovations that otherwise await in the future would a successful revolution destroy today?
- Socialization is a matter of degrees. I take this from an analogous insight offered indirectly by Ludwig Von Mises (in his masterwork on socialism, online for free here, along with tons of other Austrian-school economics books and articles) regarding democracy: in some sense, every state is democratic, insofar as a sufficient number of people are sufficiently satisfied with the prevailing state of affairs such that it continues. Put another way, enough people choose with enough commitment to go along with what is the established order of society so that a new order is not established. Incremental changes might happen even outside of a “formal” democratic structure or means (viz., voting on a ballot). Likewise, socialization exists insofar as property is under the control of the community. All kinds of ways exist for controlling “private property” and “private production” through the government or some other organ of the community. The question then is not whether to socialize property or the means of production, it is whether to increase or decrease the strength or directness or scope of the socialization which already exists (and which informs the society’s understanding of ownership and the private sector). This is an important hermeneutic when giving any critique of “socialism”; it is a complicated issue. Simple dismissals of “socialism” are therefore rightly met with equally simple counter-dismissals by those who know the history and contemporary literature. However, Communism, the highest form of socialization, is subject to special critiques insofar as challenges to socialism’s status as desirable, achievable, and sustainable are “turned up to eleven” when discussing socialism’s perfected form.
- The scope of the authentic Communist movement today is very limited. The SPD’s Godesberg Program could probably be used as a singular indication of the global shift away from revolutionary Communism toward a milder and less-defined “socialism”; Marx and Engels were quite involved in the affairs of the SPD early on, particularly in opposing the influence of Lassalle’s revisionism, such as we see in the Critique of the Gotha Program alluded to in the America article. That revisionism is radically exceeded in Godesberg, the spirit of which informs the global socialist movement of today much more than an entirely unrealistic call for pure Communism. Under this hyper-revisionism, most “serious” contemporary socialists work for a humane administration of governmental tools in a mixed economy (partly socialist, partly capitalist), and many of them further envision a high degree of democratic participation in the planning of this administration – but NOT full public or collectivized ownership of the basic means of production, the classical definition of socialism. One will find this theme explored at length in the final work of Michael Harrington (also alluded to in the article – who was apparently a “Catholic Worker,” and yet, though we are not told there, was also a committed atheist), and any number of recent books and articles on so-called “democratic socialism.” (Connected but somewhat distinct ideas are “market socialism” and “participatory economics.”) These positions are sometimes subtler than one might think, even if they all ultimately fall prey at least in part to the same pitfalls as more classical Marxist theories (which, by and large, they do in my estimation). Whatever the case, while the old encyclical condemnations remain relevant, those written before 1960 are not necessarily the slam-dunk cases against contemporary socialism that many people think them to be, as they are addressing a more classical version under old global conditions.
So there you have it. In sum, classical Communism is Heaven without God, earned through a large-scale, unavoidable, Hegelian-style revolution due to class conflict, and history teaches us that, despite Engels’ optimism that the revolution only might involve force, is always incredibly violent, whether directly through the killing fields and gulags, or indirectly through creating famine and destitution. Is this what the folks at America think is worthy of discussing seriously with openness? I hope not. If it is true that Communism has a “complicated relationship” with Catholicism – and it is, simply because both are complicated things – perhaps another journal is more fit to handle the discussion.