In a recent episode of the Word on Fire show published on YouTube, Auxiliary Bishop Robert Barron of Los Angeles and host Brandon Vogt discuss what they describe as the increasing interest of young people, particularly millennials, in Marxism. The evidence for this interest can be found among university campus activist groups, in organizations such as the Democratic Socialists of America that are increasing in prominence, and on social media platforms like Twitter. Barron and Vogt point to an article published in Teen Vogue last year introducing the thought of Karl Marx as another example. Although Barron and Vogt do not mention it, the episode appeared only days after the publication of the article “The Catholic Case for Communism” by Dean Detloff in America magazine, which has generated significant controversy online.
Aiming at an audience that may not be especially familiar with Marxism, Barron spends much of the episode explaining some of its basic concepts, such as dialectical materialism, alienation, and the nature of class conflict in the capitalist economic system. After explaining the centrality of atheism to Marx’s philosophy and his concept of alienation, undoubtedly the most important source of conflict between Marxism and Catholicism, Barron also looks at two other areas of tension, the notions of class conflict and private property. He points out that while Marx calls for fomenting conflict between the working class and the bourgeoisie, Catholic social teaching has tended toward fostering harmony between the two classes. Likewise, whereas Marxism aims at the abolition of private property, Catholic social teaching affirms a natural right to private property.
Although, as the title suggests, my book Interrupting Capitalism: Catholic Social Thought and the Economy, is focused on the church’s evolving views on capitalism, it also raises some further objections to Marxism inspired by the Catholic social tradition. These criticisms mostly focus on what one might consider “big picture” questions of social theory. For example, Marxism puts a great deal of emphasis on how social structures shape individual agents, most importantly by providing individuals with a class identity, but also through the way that culture, religion, law, etc. reinforce the class structure of society. On the other hand, Marxism has an underdeveloped sense of how agents transform the structures of society; revolutions come about through contradictions inherent in the economic system, according to Marx, and although obviously these revolutions are brought about by individual actors, one gets the sense that they are swept along by historical forces or even a quasi-mechanical process. Likewise, because of its dialecticism, Marxism tends to think of society as divided into two conflicting forces, one representing the dominant class in society and the other representing its opponents. In reality, societies are complex systems made up of groups with a variety of interests and ideologies, and divided along multiple lines; social conflict does not follow a pre-determined path but rather is a messy process with uncertain outcomes.
It is also important, however, to consider how Catholic social thought has been enriched through both intellectual and practical engagement with Marxism. In his essay, Detloff lists some examples of Catholics who have identified as communist and become involved in communist movements, such as the Colombian priest Camilo Torres who joined a revolutionary guerrilla movement in the 1960s, and the contemporary Christians for National Liberation movement in the Philippines. One might also mention the involvement of a number of French worker priests in the communist movement in the 1940s and 1950s or the cattocommunisti movement in Italy in the 1940s and beyond, for example.
But Marxism has had an important influence on the social thought of Catholics even when the latter did not become full-fledged communists. For example, through concurrent study of the works of Thomas Aquinas and Karl Marx, the Dominican priest and economist Louis-Joseph Lebret came to emphasize the objective value of material products in terms of the human labor that produced them and their ability to meet real human needs, as opposed to capitalist thought in which the value of products is entirely subjective, measured in terms of how much people are willing to pay. Lebret’s insights are echoed in Pope Paul VI’s emphasis on truly human development in Populorum Progressio (1967) and in Pope John Paul II’s exposition on the dignity of work in Laborem Exercens (1981).
The Catholic social tradition has also benefited from the dialogue between Latin American liberation theologians and Marxism in the 1970s and 1980s. In the 1960s, the dominant perspective within Latin American sociology understood poverty as the marginalization of the poor from the modern capitalist economy; the solution to poverty, therefore, was the integration of the poor into the capitalist economy by providing them with modern jobs and an up-to-date education, but also by eradicating more traditional mindsets and cultural mores. More radical Marxist sociologists, however, recognized that this former approach attempted to externalize poverty and social conflict, as if they somehow existed outside the social system. But such an approach fails to adequately explain how poverty and social conflict arise within a social system. The Marxist approach proposed that conflict itself was a feature of the social system, not something that could be externalized or explained away. Latin American liberation theologians rightly turned to Marxist social analysis in part because it offered a way to understand the social conflict of the dark years of the 1970s, even if there were also important shortcomings in Marxist analysis.
In contrasting the Catholic and Marxist views of social conflict, Bishop Barron underplays the ways in which the church’s views on the question have evolved, at least in part as a result of liberation theologians’ engagement with Marxism described above. It is true that in Pope Leo XIII’s encyclical Rerum Novarum (1891) and Pope Pius XI’s Quadragesimo Anno (1931), Catholic social teaching proposes the goal of harmony between the working class and the owners of capital, rather than class conflict, and both popes are ambivalent about workers taking part in conflictual actions such as striking. In Laborem Exercens, however, John Paul II points out that historically speaking class conflict resulted from the exploitation of workers under capitalism as it was actually practiced, and indeed as it continues to be practiced today (#11). Perhaps more importantly, John Paul writes that it is legitimate for workers to participate in a struggle for their rights, even if this struggle “takes on a character of opposition towards others.” He makes a distinction, however, between a struggle for the rights of workers as part of a broader vision of social justice, and class struggle defined as primarily against others, or at the elimination of the opponent (#20). Although one might quibble with whether John Paul has adequately distinguished a Catholic view of class conflict from the Marxist one (the issue is taken up in more detail in the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith’s 1984 Instruction on Certain Aspects of the “Theology of Liberation”), his recognition of class conflict as a reality of the modern economy and of the legitimacy of social conflict as means of promoting the common good are an important development in Catholic social teaching.
This evolution in Catholic social teaching is relevant for the discussion of the appeal of Marxism to young people today. Barron claims that Marxism’s appeal has something to do with young people’s innate desire for justice, especially when faced with some of the injustices experienced in the contemporary capitalist economy. He rightly points out that Catholic social teaching does not promote an unfettered free market, but rather supports limitations on the free market—such as laws ensuring safe working conditions, a fair wage for workers, and the right of workers to form unions—that promote the common good. Detloff is more concrete in explaining Marxism’s appeal, pointing to workers forced to work to the point of exhaustion or to go without bathroom breaks, even in countries with labor protections like the United States and the United Kingdom. Why is the free market not limited in the robust ways proposed by Catholic social teaching here in the twenty-first century, and indeed why has progress on unionization and workers’ rights in many ways gone backwards in the past several decades? What many young people, including Catholics, have come to suspect is that the inequalities between workers and owners are not limited to the economic sphere, but rather infect the democratic process and the access to information through the media, making it very difficult for people to organize on behalf of the rights of workers and other disadvantaged groups. Although I do not identify as a Marxist and agree with Barron that there are important incompatibilities between Catholic social thought and Marxism, I do believe that part of the appeal of Marxism or communism to young people today is the recognition that the common good cannot be achieved without a struggle, without some form of conflict. Catholic social teaching has already come a long way in recognizing this fact, but the church must come to embrace it if it is to appeal to young people yearning for justice.