This ferment has overlapped with the dissatisfaction of a number of Catholics with the two dominant political orientations among U.S. Catholics, the neoconservative right and the progressive left. The most radical critics of the status quo have taken explicitly anti-liberal positions, rejecting liberal democracy as it is currently practiced and free market capitalism as antithetical to Catholic faith. Perhaps most well-known among these radical stances is the localist communitarianism characteristic of political philosopher Patrick Deneen’s anti-liberalism and the “Benedict Option” articulated by the Orthodox writer Rod Dreher and adopted by a number of Catholics. On the right there has also been a renewed interest in Catholic integralism, articulated at the blog The Josias and at Gabriel Sanchez’s blog Opus Publicum (I have written about this “postmodern integralism” here and here).
More recently, another group of Catholics, the Tradinistas, have attempted to wed orthodox Catholicism with socialism, and I want to devote this post and a subsequent one to the group’s work so far. Of course, Catholic socialism is nothing new—one need only look at the Western European Catholic socialist movements of the 1940s and 1950s or Latin American liberation theology beginning in the late 1960s. A number of progressive Catholics in the U.S. today identify with socialism of the social democratic variety. What makes the Tradinistas novel is their origins in the anti-liberal discontent mentioned above (Edmund Waldstein usefully situates the Tradinistas among these other anti-liberal positions). The Tradinistas are representative of the increasing diversity of political orientations among engaged Catholics, in some ways similar to Western Europe in the 1930s when young Catholics established a similar diversity of movements defying easy categorization into left and right (although perhaps overstating the similarities, Shaun Kenney insightfully compares the Tradinistas to the left wing of the Spanish Falange; the integralists could very easily be compared to the right wing).
The Tradinistas have understandably devoted a good deal of their initial writing to the question of how to reconcile their Catholicism with socialism, particularly given Catholic social teaching’s checkered history with socialism. I have covered some of the same ground myself, although addressing the admittedly easier question of whether a Catholic could vote for a socialist, rather than whether a Catholic could be a socialist. I agree with David Mills’s assessment that the Tradinistas’ exploration of this question has the potential to force other Catholics, particularly neoconservatives, “to take neglected aspects of the Church’s social teaching more seriously than they do.” On the other hand, I do not think they have yet made a compelling case for their synthesis; their argument for a Catholic socialism depends on a bait and switch. Let me explain.
In the first of three essays on “A Catholic socialism?”, C. W. Strand (Mills claims this is a pseudonym; I have no way to know) correctly makes the point that to assess whether Catholicism and socialism are compatible depends on what one means by “socialism.” Strand also rightly explains that a functional definition of “socialism” must be capacious since there have historically been a great variety of socialisms. Strand goes astray, however, by providing us with an overly capacious definition, derived from the economic historian Karl Polanyi’s The Great Transformation:
“[S]ocialism” refers to an economic system which, transcending the self-regulating market, subordinates a significant part of it to communal control.
Taken at face value, this definition of socialism is so capacious that it would include practically every economy that has ever existed. Every human society has subordinated economic life to “communal control” in some form or another. This extreme vagueness is central to Polanyi’s project, since one of his central arguments is that capitalism represents an aberration from the economic life of all previously existing societies, a “great transformation” in humankind’s cultural mindset, and that therefore modern democratic socialism is an attempt to restore the more human relationships characteristic of pre-capitalist economies. Polanyi provides a valuable critique of the mainstream economic view that capitalist economic rationality represents the natural condition of humankind, but this definition of socialism is not particularly useful for distinguishing modern socialism from other non-capitalist forms of economy, or even from actually-existing capitalist economies.
After all, even in the United States the labor market is regulated to exclude slave labor, most forms of child labor, long hours without overtime pay; employers must pay a minimum wage, provide relatively safe working conditions, and at least in theory provide the opportunity for workers to organize; there are extensive regulations to protect the environment, promote food and drug safety, ensure the safety of consumer products, etc. One could certainly make the case that a “significant part” of the U.S. economy is “subordinated to communal control.”
It is also instructive to compare Strand’s definition of socialism with Pope John Paul II’s insistence that the market must be “circumscribed within a strong juridical framework which places it at the service of human freedom in its totality” (Centesimus Annus, #42). Although not identical, it is undeniable that there are deep similarities between the two statements. Yet here John Paul is attempting to define capitalism rightly understood (although, as he notes, he prefers to call it the “business economy,” the “market economy,” or the “free economy”). So I think it is certainly problematic, from an analytical perspective, that what is here being proposed as Catholic socialism cannot be clearly distinguished from what recent Catholic social teaching means by a market economy or capitalism, at least as the latter is understood in a positive sense.
Strand’s definition of capitalism also raises some problems. It is defined thusly:
[A]n economic system in which, by and large, one class of persons, lacking means of production, sell their labor-power to another class of persons who possess means of production. So capitalism is not merely a “market economy,” but rather one characterized by a particular, dominant social relation – that between capital and wage-labor.
First, this is still a relatively thin definition, and ought to include something about the role of the market, money, and finance in the capitalist system to clearly distinguish it from other forms of economy. More importantly, however, it is odd that Strand defines capitalism in terms of an entirely different problematic—that of labor and class relations—than that used in the definition of socialism—the regulation of the market. There are a couple of problems with this.
For one, since socialism and capitalism are defined on such different axes, on Strand’s terms it is entirely possible that an economy could be both capitalist and socialist at the same time, and if we take these definitions at face value, this is quite common. Using the capacious definition of socialism above, all of the economies of Western Europe and that of the United States are both capitalist and socialist, since they all depend on wage labor and involve significant regulation of the market. Likewise, just as many anti-Stalinist Marxists and post-Marxists in the 1940s and 1950s claimed, one could argue that the economies of the Soviet Union and Eastern bloc were “state capitalist,” command economies in which workers were employed by a bureaucratic class (I don’t share that assessment, I am just pointing out that it is consistent with Strand’s definitions). I am being somewhat facetious here, since it is clear from the Tradinista manifesto that in their view capitalism is something to be abolished and replaced by socialism. But if the definitions of capitalism and socialism being used here are so vague that the two could peacefully coexist, then we don’t have clear enough definitions to meaningfully proceed with the argument.
So this is the “bait” in our bait and switch, to define socialism so broadly that it is obviously compatible with Catholic social teaching, indeed so broadly that it is hardly analytically useful at all. As Strand states, “’Socialism’ . . . possesses a variety of senses, and only some of those senses fall under the condemnations of ‘socialism’ articulated in papal encyclicals” So what is the “switch”? Having established that “socialism” broadly understood is compatible with Catholic teaching, the Tradinistas then advocate for a much more specific form of socialism as if they had established that this socialism was compatible with Catholic teaching, when they have done no such thing. And indeed, this socialism contradicts Catholic social teaching in important ways. But I will have to fully explain this argument in an upcoming post.
Matthew A. Shadle is Associate Professor of Theology and Religious Studies at Marymount University in Arlington, Virginia. He has published The Origins of War: A Catholic Perspective (Georgetown, 2011). His work focuses on the development of Catholic social teaching and its intersection with both fundamental moral theology and the social sciences, with special focus on war and peace, the economy, and immigration.