Pius XI against communism: another forgotten intervention in the social magisterium

We have talked recently about important Church documents on the social question (or economics or political economy). In our view, integralist Catholics need to promote not only a correct understanding of the relation between Church and state but also a ressourcement of the Church’s true social teaching. In recent years, as capitalism and liberalism have become the dominant ideologies in the west, many important interventions by the popes have been forgotten in favor of about half of Rerum novarum and about half of Centesimus annus. However, it is becoming clear that liberalism and capitalism have created in the west a dead end, and many men and women of good faith are looking for a way forward. The Church offers exactly that, and recovering our understanding of these interventions is, therefore, a rejection of unrestrained capitalism and liberalism in favor of Church’s reliable solutions to these problems. By the same token, it would be a fruitless project to argue that the state is subordinate to the Church, even indirectly, on those matters touching upon faith and morals, if the true teaching of the Church is not also advanced.

Among the forgotten interventions is Pope Pius XI’s 1937 encyclical on communism, Divini Redemptoris. This encyclical is another condemnation of the materialistic, atheistic, and leveling impulses then current in communism and socialism. However, it is more than that: Pius XI took the opportunity to hand down an encyclical very much in the vein of Leo XIII’s great social encyclicals, touching upon not only matters of political economy but also the constitution of the state. The towering Papa Ratti explains the problems with communism succinctly, drawing implicitly on the teachings of Leo XIII and Pius X:

The Communism of today, more emphatically than similar movements in the past, conceals in itself a false messianic idea. A pseudo-ideal of justice, of equality and fraternity in labor impregnates all its doctrine and activity with a deceptive mysticism, which communicates a zealous and contagious enthusiasm to the multitudes entrapped by delusive promises. This is especially true in an age like ours, when unusual misery has resulted from the unequal distribution of the goods of this world. This pseudo-ideal is even boastfully advanced as if it were responsible for a certain economic progress. As a matter of fact, when such progress is at all real, its true causes are quite different, as for instance the intensification of industrialism in countries which were formerly almost without it, the exploitation of immense natural resources, and the use of the most brutal methods to insure the achievement of gigantic projects with a minimum of expense.

The doctrine of modern Communism, which is often concealed under the most seductive trappings, is in substance based on the principles of dialectical and historical materialism previously advocated by Marx, of which the theoricians of bolshevism claim to possess the only genuine interpretation. According to this doctrine there is in the world only one reality, matter, the blind forces of which evolve into plant, animal and man. Even human society is nothing but a phenomenon and form of matter, evolving in the same way. By a law of inexorable necessity and through a perpetual conflict of forces, matter moves towards the final synthesis of a classless society. In such a doctrine, as is evident, there is no room for the idea of God; there is no difference between matter and spirit, between soul and body; there is neither survival of the soul after death nor any hope in a future life. Insisting on the dialectical aspect of their materialism, the Communists claim that the conflict which carries the world towards its final synthesis can be accelerated by man. Hence they endeavor to sharpen the antagonisms which arise between the various classes of society. Thus the class struggle with its consequent violent hate and destruction takes on the aspects of a crusade for the progress of humanity. On the other hand, all other forces whatever, as long as they resist such systematic violence, must be annihilated as hostile to the human race.

Communism, moreover, strips man of his liberty, robs human personality of all its dignity, and removes all the moral restraints that check the eruptions of blind impulse. There is no recognition of any right of the individual in his relations to the collectivity; no natural right is accorded to human personality, which is a mere cog-wheel in the Communist system. In man’s relations with other individuals, besides, Communists hold the principle of absolute equality, rejecting all hierarchy and divinely-constituted authority, including the authority of parents. What men call authority and subordination is derived from the community as its first and only font. Nor is the individual granted any property rights over material goods or the means of production, for inasmuch as these are the source of further wealth, their possession would give one man power over another. Precisely on this score, all forms of private property must be eradicated, for they are at the origin of all economic enslavement.

(Emphasis supplied and paragraph numbers omitted.) Leo XIII and Pius X had discussed socialism and communism in similar terms. Materialism, class struggle, and an artificial—unnatural—leveling of society are the three biggest faults of socialism and communism as it was practiced at the time. This is not to say that the socialists and communists did not have grounds to critique liberalism, however. We shall, in a moment, see that Pius himself finds liberalism deficient.

A word on materialism, though. More recently, in Spe salvi, Benedict XVI provided an important connection with respect to Pius’s critique of socialism and communism:

Together with the victory of the revolution, though, Marx’s fundamental error also became evident. He showed precisely how to overthrow the existing order, but he did not say how matters should proceed thereafter. He simply presumed that with the expropriation of the ruling class, with the fall of political power and the socialization of means of production, the new Jerusalem would be realized. Then, indeed, all contradictions would be resolved, man and the world would finally sort themselves out. Then everything would be able to proceed by itself along the right path, because everything would belong to everyone and all would desire the best for one another. Thus, having accomplished the revolution, Lenin must have realized that the writings of the master gave no indication as to how to proceed. True, Marx had spoken of the interim phase of the dictatorship of the proletariat as a necessity which in time would automatically become redundant. This “intermediate phase” we know all too well, and we also know how it then developed, not ushering in a perfect world, but leaving behind a trail of appalling destruction. Marx not only omitted to work out how this new world would be organized—which should, of course, have been unnecessary. His silence on this matter follows logically from his chosen approach. His error lay deeper. He forgot that man always remains man. He forgot man and he forgot man’s freedom. He forgot that freedom always remains also freedom for evil. He thought that once the economy had been put right, everything would automatically be put right. His real error is materialism: man, in fact, is not merely the product of economic conditions, and it is not possible to redeem him purely from the outside by creating a favourable economic environment.

(Emphasis supplied.) In this regard, Benedict points backward to Pius’s description of communist materialism: the inexorable conclusion of dialectical materialism meant that the communist needn’t spend an inordinate amount of time constructing a solution to the social question. Simply heightening the contradictions would move things in that direction. This turned out to be not the case, at least as implemented in the Soviet Union. The upshot is that the failure of communism to rebuild a society in the place of the one it overthrew is ultimately a failure at the heart of Marxism-Leninism-Stalinism. It is not a question of the right ideas being applied wrongly.

Now, there is a question of the extent to which dialectical materialism was a key component of Marx’s thought, as opposed to a gloss by Engels on Marxist thought or a later development by Plekhanov, Lenin, and Stalin. Nevertheless, Pius was certainly accurately describing communism’s dominant tendency in 1937, and any extant form of socialism or communism that adheres to dialectical materialism. The popes show, we think, that dialectical materialism is simply incapable of producing positive results. Any attempt, therefore, to grapple with Marxist thought must address the question of dialectical materialism and its fundamental flaws.

As we noted just a moment ago, the popes understand why communism (or socialism or any variant of either) is so attractive. Indeed, Pius XI is not blind as to the reason why communism was, in 1937, such a live option:

How is it possible that such a system, long since rejected scientifically and now proved erroneous by experience, how is it, We ask, that such a system could spread so rapidly in all parts of the world? The explanation lies in the fact that too few have been able to grasp the nature of Communism. The majority instead succumb to its deception, skillfully concealed by the most extravagant promises. By pretending to desire only the betterment of the condition of the working classes, by urging the removal of the very real abuses chargeable to the liberalistic economic order, and by demanding a more equitable distribution of this world’s goods (objectives entirely and undoubtedly legitimate), the Communist takes advantage of the present world-wide economic crisis to draw into the sphere of his influence even those sections of the populace which on principle reject all forms of materialism and terrorism. And as every error contains its element of truth, the partial truths to which We have referred are astutely presented according to the needs of time and place, to conceal, when convenient, the repulsive crudity and inhumanity of Communistic principles and tactics. Thus the Communist ideal wins over many of the better minded members of the community. These in turn become the apostles of the movement among the younger intelligentsia who are still too immature to recognize the intrinsic errors of the system. The preachers of Communism are also proficient in exploiting racial antagonisms and political divisions and oppositions. They take advantage of the lack of orientation characteristic of modern agnostic science in order to burrow into the universities, where they bolster up the principles of their doctrine with pseudo-scientific arguments.

If we would explain the blind acceptance of Communism by so many thousands of workmen, we must remember that the way had been already prepared for it by the religious and moral destitution in which wage-earners had been left by liberal economics. Even on Sundays and holy days, labor-shifts were given no time to attend to their essential religious duties. No one thought of building churches within convenient distance of factories, nor of facilitating the work of the priest. On the contrary, laicism was actively and persistently promoted, with the result that we are now reaping the fruits of the errors so often denounced by Our Predecessors and by Ourselves. It can surprise no one that the Communistic fallacy should be spreading in a world already to a large extent de-Christianized.

(Emphasis supplied and paragraph numbers omitted.) Pius goes on to say:

It may be said in all truth that the Church, like Christ, goes through the centuries doing good to all. There would be today neither Socialism nor Communism if the rulers of the nations had not scorned the teachings and maternal warnings of the Church. On the bases of liberalism and laicism they wished to build other social edifices which, powerful and imposing as they seemed at first, all too soon revealed the weakness of their foundations, and today are crumbling one after another before our eyes, as everything must crumble that is not grounded on the one corner stone which is Christ Jesus.

(Emphasis supplied.) In other words, in Pius’s view, liberalism itself creates the conditions for a communist reaction.

On one hand, liberalism and capitalism commit “very real” abuses and tend toward an unjust distribution of material goods. On the other hand, liberalism de-Christianizes society, leaving workers in a state of “religious and moral destitution.” The communist, Pius teaches, comes into this situation promising to remedy the former situation, and a de-Christianized society is incapable of responding to the system the communist proposes. This point bears underlining: Pius XI taught that liberalism both creates the circumstances that spawn pernicious ideologies and renders its subjects incapable of responding to those same ideologies. In a sense, liberalism sets up not only its failure but also the success of worse ideologies. This is, of course, a scene we see playing out even now, as more men and women realize that liberalism is a dead end. They, rightly seeing the injustices created by liberalism, look to all manner of potential ways forward, both to the right and the left. However, liberalism has left many of them incapable of discerning the ways in which the ways forward do and, more important, do not comport with the divine and natural law. And it is with his incisive diagnosis of liberalism that Pius returns to the question of the Christian state and of political economy.

If liberalism invariably sets the stage for communism, then addressing the faults of liberalism is in a sense prophylaxis against communism. One fault that Pius identifies is the atomized, individualistic relationship between man and society—that is, between man and the state—that liberalism fosters. Consider this passage explaining the correct understanding of that relationship:

But God has likewise destined man for civil society according to the dictates of his very nature. In the plan of the Creator, society is a natural means which man can and must use to reach his destined end. Society is for man and not vice versa. This must not be understood in the sense of liberalistic individualism, which subordinates society to the selfish use of the individual; but only in the sense that by means of an organic union with society and by mutual collaboration the attainment of earthly happiness is placed within the reach of all. In a further sense, it is society which affords the opportunities for the development of all the individual and social gifts bestowed on human nature. These natural gifts have a value surpassing the immediate interests of the moment, for in society they reflect the divine perfection, which would not be true were man to live alone. But on final analysis, even in this latter function, society is made for man, that he may recognize this reflection of God’s perfection, and refer it in praise and adoration to the Creator. Only man, the human person, and not society in any form is endowed with reason and a morally free will.

Man cannot be exempted from his divinely-imposed obligations toward civil society, and the representatives of authority have the right to coerce him when he refuses without reason to do his duty. Society, on the other hand, cannot defraud man of his God-granted rights, the most important of which We have indicated above. Nor can society systematically void these rights by making their use impossible. It is therefore according to the dictates of reason that ultimately all material things should be ordained to man as a person, that through his mediation they may find their way to the Creator. In this wise we can apply to man, the human person, the words of the Apostle of the Gentiles, who writes to the Corinthians on the Christian economy of salvation: “All things are yours, and you are Christ’s, and Christ is God’s.” While Communism impoverishes human personality by inverting the terms of the relation of man to society, to what lofty heights is man not elevated by reason and Revelation!

(Emphasis supplied and paragraph numbers omitted.) Now, an Aristotelian and a Thomist knows that it is natural for man to live in society in peace and unity. And Pius takes this point to respond to a mass of errors. On one hand, the relationship between man and society makes class struggle in the communist sense impossible—to say nothing of state terror. On the other hand, man may lawfully be coerced into living up to his obligations to society; that is, the atomization of society under liberalism is itself forbidden. Man is a social animal, we know from Aristotle and Thomas.

In this vein, Pius goes on to condemn the leveling impulse of communism in strong terms:

In this same Encyclical of Ours We have shown that the means of saving the world of today from the lamentable ruin into which a moral liberalism has plunged us, are neither the class-struggle nor terror, nor yet the autocratic abuse of State power, but rather the infusion of social justice and the sentiment of Christian love into the social-economic order. We have indicated how a sound prosperity is to be restored according to the true principles of a sane corporative system which respects the proper hierarchic structure of society; and how all the occupational groups should be fused into a harmonious unity inspired by the principle of the common good. And the genuine and chief function of public and civil authority consists precisely in the efficacious furthering of this harmony and coordination of all social forces.

In view of this organized common effort towards peaceful living, Catholic doctrine vindicates to the State the dignity and authority of a vigilant and provident defender of those divine and human rights on which the Sacred Scriptures and the Fathers of the Church insist so often. It is not true that all have equal rights in civil society. It is not true that there exists no lawful social hierarchy. Let it suffice to refer to the Encyclicals of Leo XIII already cited, especially to that on State powers, and to the other on the Christian Constitution of States. In these documents the Catholic will find the principles of reason and the Faith clearly explained, and these principles will enable him to defend himself against the errors and perils of a Communistic conception of the State. The enslavement of man despoiled of his rights, the denial of the transcendental origin of the State and its authority, the horrible abuse of public power in the service of a collectivistic terrorism, are the very contrary of all that corresponds with natural ethics and the will of the Creator. Both man and civil society derive their origin from the Creator, Who has mutually ordained them one to the other. Hence neither can be exempted from their correlative obligations, nor deny or diminish each other’s rights. The Creator Himself has regulated this mutual relationship in its fundamental lines, and it is by an unjust usurpation that Communism arrogates to itself the right to enforce, in place of the divine law based on the immutable principles of truth and charity, a partisan political program which derives from the arbitrary human will and is replete with hate.

(Emphasis supplied and paragraph numbers omitted.) The leveling tendency of socialism was a great concern for Leo XIII and St. Pius X in their treatments of these topics. That is, the desire to make absolutely equal what nature has made unequal is a defect of socialist thought. Pius echoes their condemnations of the idea.

As we said—and as we have explained previously—the common good is peace and unity. What Pius XI (and Leo XIII and St. Pius X) explains is that the leveling tendencies of communism, the political choice to enforce absolute political equality, is ultimately contrary to the common good. There is a hierarchical structure to society and ordering oneself to that structure is ultimately ordering oneself to the common good. Trying to obliterate that structure, however, is almost by definition an act against peace and unity. While the flaws of socialism with respect to leveling are well demonstrated in the magisterium, we wonder if socialism alone is subject to the charge. Could one argue that liberalism no less than socialism attempts to enforce absolute political equality? Pius sees in liberal thought a radical individualism that seeks to unmoor man from society. To our mind this seems no less a leveling of the natural hierarchy of society than the collectivism of the communists.

A brief word about hierarchy and reform: the popes do not conflate natural hierarchy with “the way things are,” as Pius demonstrates amply in both Quadragesimo anno and Divini Redemptoris. It would be, we think, an error to assert or imply that reform or reconstruction of society requires the leveling of the communists or the liberals. The fact is that Leo XIII, St. Pius X, and Pius XI all condemned the unnatural leveling of society; it may not be said, therefore, that it is an acceptable component of necessary reform or reconstruction.

Turning to a broader discussion of the social question, Pius sets forth the rights and duties of capital and labor once more, following his teaching in Quadragesimo anno. One passage is particularly significant today, given the understanding and misunderstanding of the term social justice:

In reality, besides commutative justice, there is also social justice with its own set obligations, from which neither employers nor workingmen can escape. Now it is of the very essence of social justice to demand for each individual all that is necessary for the common good. But just as in the living organism it is impossible to provide for the good of the whole unless each single part and each individual member is given what it needs for the exercise of its proper functions, so it is impossible to care for the social organism and the good of society as a unit unless each single part and each individual member—that is to say, each individual man in the dignity of his human personality—is supplied with all that is necessary for the exercise of his social functions. If social justice be satisfied, the result will be an intense activity in economic life as a whole, pursued in tranquillity and order. This activity will be proof of the health of the social body, just as the health of the human body is recognized in the undisturbed regularity and perfect efficiency of the whole organism.

But social justice cannot be said to have been satisfied as long as workingmen are denied a salary that will enable them to secure proper sustenance for themselves and for their families; as long as they are denied the opportunity of acquiring a modest fortune and forestalling the plague of universal pauperism; as long as they cannot make suitable provision through public or private insurance for old age, for periods of illness and unemployment. In a word, to repeat what has been said in Our Encyclical Quadragesimo Anno: “Then only will the economic and social order be soundly established and attain its ends, when it offers, to all and to each, all those goods which the wealth and resources of nature, technical science and the corporate organization of social affairs can give. These goods should be sufficient to supply all necessities and reasonable comforts, and to uplift men to that higher standard of life which, provided it be used with prudence, is not only not a hindrance but is of singular help to virtue.”

(Emphasis supplied and paragraph numbers omitted.) Social justice must, therefore, be seen in terms of the common good—in terms of peace and unity—and especially in terms of work and the ability to support oneself and one’s family. This is a far cry both from a social justice conceived solely in identitarian terms and from a concept of society that denies social justice altogether.

Indeed, one sees throughout Divini Redemptoris the teaching that the way to avoid the modern social errors, both communism and liberalism, is to focus on the common good. This is, of course, the purest Thomism. One sees in the De Regno and the Treatise of Law from the Summa Theologiae that society is ultimately ordered—if it is rightly ordered—to the common good. When a society departs from the common good, either into individualism or collectivism, Pius appears to teach, the society sows the seeds of its own destruction.