Economics/Class Relations

Capitalism Produces Socialism

From the print magazine:

This essay was originally published in New Polity Issue 2.4 (Fall 2021).
Order the full issue here.


There is a lot of talk these days about an increasing interest in socialism. It is quite the conundrum if approached within the assumptions of late liberalism: why indeed would the victors in the Cold War seek to become their vanquished enemies? Pope Pius XI helps us through this problem. He helps us see that socialism does not emerge out of nothing, but rather is produced out of liberal society. We have a rise in socialism precisely because we are increasingly liberal, increasingly capitalistic. Liberalism and socialism are locked in a battle that only occurs within the social space cleared by liberalism. As liberalism succeeds in its clearing, socialism always joins it by colonizing the empty space. Liberalism and socialism, individualism and collectivism, are, therefore, two sides of the same coin—a coin brought into being by replacing structures of solidarity with structures of self-interest. Opposition to socialism is therefore only coherent when it takes the form of a commitment not to liberalism but to social solidarity and so, ultimately, to Christianity.

“Before a man are life and death, good and evil, and whichever he chooses will be given to him.” — Sirach 15:17

The question before us is why there is an increased interest in socialism— and what we ought to do about it.[1] To help us reach an answer, I want to turn to the writings of Pope Pius XI. Pius is important for this question: first, because other than Leo XIII himself, and perhaps John Paul II, Pius XI is the most important contributor to the formation of social doctrine; second, because Pius occupied the papal throne from 1922 to 1939. This was a time in Europe in many ways similar to our own. It was a time of political and economic turmoil that saw the rise of the great 20th-century totalitarian movements: fascism and socialism. Pius developed Catholic social teaching to address this situation, and he directly addresses the question of why socialism was on the rise.

Pius’s answer to our question might be a bit hard to our ears. Pius blames capitalism (which he sometimes refers to as “individualist economics,” as the “current economic system,” or most often as “liberalism”). I know that many of us recoil from this. But this is a bias that we must overcome if we are going to understand the wisdom in Pius’s teaching. Pius asserts that we must navigate between the reefs of individualism on one side and collectivism on the other.[2] For Pius, collectivists are only the flipside of the individualist coin— collectivism is born out of individualism. They are bound up together like a two-headed monster. As Pius stated succinctly: “Let all remember that Liberalism is the father of this Socialism that is pervading morality and culture and that Bolshevism will be its heir.”[3]

Pius explains the connections between liberalism and socialism in part through a historical explanation.

In his telling, before liberalism, the social world was shaped by what we might call structures of solidarity. These were things such as the family, the community, the church, the guild, various professional associations, and then political structures such as the town or village. Such structures are rooted in neighborliness and friendship. Historically, these structures were ordered hierarchies of authority and care, governed by the moral law, that ascended all the way to the level of what we call the state. In principle, each level in this hierarchy of solidarity cared for or helped the level below, even while being obedient to and receiving the care of the levels above. The whole hierarchy was ordered toward the happiness, and ultimately the salvation, of each individual person: the highest, we might say, was for the lowest—power was for weakness. Pius developed the principle of subsidiarity in order to describe this type of social hierarchy.



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