Further thoughts on the socialist seduction

When we originally commented on Gabriel Sanchez’s piece regarding the “socialist seduction,” we focused on what we identified as two currents in the Church’s thinking about subsidiarity. We did not focus on the broader question. In following up a Twitter conversation on our issue, we noted that Paul VI, in his little-loved 1971 letter Octogesima adveniens, addressed the “socialist seduction” himself. It is worth noting that Paul never quite addressed socialism by name in Populorum progressio, and he made some ambiguous comments in that encyclical that seemed to point toward more aggressive regimes of redistribution that would be entirely consistent with a socialist or Marxist framework. Octogesima adveniens, coming only four years after Populorum progressio, can be seen, then, as an attempt to clarify some of the infelicities and ambiguities in the earlier document.

Addressing the question of socialism broadly (and Marxism specifically), Paul wrote,

Some Christians are today attracted by socialist currents and their various developments. They try to recognize therein a certain number of aspirations which they carry within themselves in the name of their faith. They feel that they are part of that historical current and wish to play a part within it. Now this historical current takes on, under the same name, different forms according to different continents and cultures, even if it drew its inspiration, and still does in many cases, from ideologies incompatible with faith. Careful judgment is called for. Too often Christians attracted by socialism tend to idealize it in terms which, apart from anything else, are very general: a will for justice, solidarity and equality. They refuse to recognize the limitations of the historical socialist movements, which remain conditioned by the ideologies from which they originated. Distinctions must be made to guide concrete choices between the various levels of expression of socialism: a generous aspiration and a seeking for a more just society, historical movements with a political organization and aim, and an ideology which claims to give a complete and self-sufficient picture of man. Nevertheless, these distinctions must not lead one to consider such levels as completely separate and independent. The concrete link which, according to circumstances, exists between them must be clearly marked out. This insight will enable Christians to see the degree of commitment possible along these lines, while safeguarding the values, especially those of liberty, responsibility and openness to the spiritual, which guarantee the integral development of man.

Other Christians even ask whether an historical development of Marxism might not authorize certain concrete rapprochements. They note in fact a certain splintering of Marxism, which until now showed itself to be a unitary ideology which explained in atheistic terms the whole of man and the world since it did not go outside their development process. Apart from the ideological confrontation officially separating the various champions of Marxism-Leninism in their individual interpretations of the thought of its founders, and apart from the open opposition between the political systems which make use of its name today, some people lay down distinctions between Marxism’s various levels of expression.

For some, Marxism remains essentially the active practice of class struggle. Experiencing the ever present and continually renewed force of the relationships of domination and exploitation among men, they reduce Marxism to no more than a struggle – at times with no other purpose – to be pursued and even stirred up in permanent fashion. For others, it is first and foremost the collective exercise of political and economic power under the direction of a single party, which would be the sole expression and guarantee of the welfare of all, and would deprive individuals and other groups of any possibility of initiative and choice. At a third level, Marxism’ whether in power or not, is viewed as a socialist ideology based on historical materialism and the denial of everything transcendent. At other times, finally, it presents itself in a more attenuated form, one also more attractive to the modern mind: as a scientific activity, as a rigorous method of examining social and political reality, and as the rational link, tested by history, between theoretical knowledge and the practice of revolutionary transformation. Although this type of analysis gives a privileged position to certain aspects of reality to the detriment of the rest, and interprets them in the light of its ideology, it nevertheless furnishes some people not only with a working tool but also a certitude preliminary to action: the claim to decipher in a scientific manner the mainsprings of the evolution of society.

While, through the concrete existing form of Marxism, one can distinguish these various aspects and the questions they pose for the reflection and activity of Christians, it would be illusory and dangerous to reach a point of forgetting the intimate link which radically binds them together, to accept the elements of Marxist analysis without recognizing their relationships with ideology, and to enter into the practice of class struggle and its Marxist interpretations, while failing to note the kind of totalitarian and violent society to which this process leads.

(Emphasis supplied.) There is a lot to unpack here, to be sure. But the crucial insight, as far as we are concerned, is this:

Too often Christians attracted by socialism tend to idealize it in terms which, apart from anything else, are very general: a will for justice, solidarity and equality. They refuse to recognize the limitations of the historical socialist movements, which remain conditioned by the ideologies from which they originated.

In other words, Christians tend to think of socialism, the Pope tells us, in vague terms. However, the general will toward social justice associated with socialism is inseparable from socialism’s political and ideological aspects. Only when socialism is considered integrally, Pope Paul teaches us, can the Catholic determine whether and to what extent it is possible to follow socialist paths toward the broader goals of social justice. While the Pope does not come out and say so, one gets the sense that he is suspicious of what he calls socialist currents. He is even more acutely suspicious of the Marxist hermeneutic. Marxist analysis, Pope Paul argues, carries the bacillus of Marxism, and the bacillus of Marxism always results in grave, if not fatal, disease.

But—but!—Pope Paul does not exclude absolutely participation in socialist currents. The question is one of proper understanding of what Paul sees as essentially a sequential path: the broad social-justice aims of socialism lead to the political structures of socialism, which in turn lead to the ideological tenets of socialism. At a certain point, that becomes unacceptable in Paul’s view, given the broadly materialistic and totalitarian aspects of socialist ideology. But there is some distance between that point and sympathy, though for different reasons, with broader objectives of social justice. One imagines, therefore, that Paul sees the process of insight and engagement as (1) knowing the general course of development from social-justice goals to socialist ideology and (2) knowing when to stop and say “no farther.” And that is the tricky thing.