Written by Fr. Marcel Guarnizo
There has been much discussion in recent weeks over the debt of Christianity to—and its compatibility with —the ideas and praxis of the socialist revolution, and even of communism. Many, even in the Catholic Church, believe that we share some of the ideals of the socialist revolution because it seems to them that communism, socialism and Christianity are for the poor. In addition to this most unfortunate error, the opposite fallacy has also been made popular in the minds of many, namely that capitalists and advocates of a free market economy, hate the poor.
But the historical record of communism tells an entirely different story. I have worked with the countries of the former Soviet Union for over 20 years, and I have seen what communism does to populations and nations. The scourge of the socialist revolution around the world gave us 6 million people killed by artificial famines in Ukraine and, as documented by The Black Book of Communism, 20 million victims in the U.S.S.R., 65 million in China, a million in Vietnam, 2 million in North Korea, another 2 million in Cambodia, a million more in the rest of Eastern Europe, 150,000 in Latin America, 1.7 million in Africa, 1.5 million in Afghanistan and through the international Communist movement and related parties about 100,000 more victims in various nations. This is a body count that reaches to 100 million victims worldwide. Communism completely destroyed the economy, social fabric, and political culture of dozens of nations. It hollowed out the intelligentsia, ruined every economy where the seed of socialism fully “bloomed,” and abrogated fundamental rights and individual freedoms of the nations it subjugated. Clearly the Judeo-Christian commandment, “Thou shalt not kill,” is not among the doctrinal teachings of communism and the socialist revolution. It is hard to believe that the socialist revolution—unlike Nazism—still finds promoters and defenders in the West.
The compatibility of Christianity and its legitimate concern for the poor owes nothing to the violent and inhuman regimes created by the socialist revolution. No system in human history has produced more poverty and misery than communism.
No greater foe has the Church ever encountered, than the communist revolution. During the 20th century, hundreds of thousands of religious and priests were sent to forced labor camps or simply executed. Five year plans to abolish religion were implemented and no true believer was ever safe in such nations. What social doctrine of the Church was ever derived from such madness? Communism and the socialist revolution are not only the antithesis of Christianity. They are also incompatible with free, just, and democratic societies.
The case against the “wonders” of the socialist revolution can be put to rest by simply reminding people that brick and mortar walls, guarded by armed soldiers, were necessary to keep people from fleeing the manmade paradise of “social equality” created by communists. As Milton Friedman pointed out, the “…strongest proof of the failure of socialism is the fall of the Berlin Wall.”
Neither is a complex apologia required to explain why there is no substantial difference between socialism and communism. Communism, as American writer Whittaker Chambers documented, is nothing more than socialism with claws. Theoretically the two systems share the same ideals and philosophical framework. Communism simply takes socialism to its logical, final consequences.
The difference between the two was captured well by a joke I once read. Communists will simply shoot you in the head, but the socialists will make you suffer for a lifetime.
To mount a case against the socialist and the communist would seem completely unnecessary given the historical record. But it is necessary, because, as we see, communism’s ideology continues to ensnare the minds of the West and many of its leaders. Perhaps the statement of Whittaker Chambers, when he decided to defect from his service to the Soviet Union, that he had chosen to join, “… the losing side” is not altogether settled. Many think the fall of the Soviet Union proved Chambers wrong, but I submit that Chambers understood, perhaps more clearly than most, the lasting and insidious nature of the socialist revolution in the West. It seems to me, that the West’s great partial victory against the Soviet Union is far from being final. Though the Soviet Empire has fallen, the West remains in an equally powerful cultural battle, which the architects of the socialist revolution themselves anticipated.
Gramsci’s Tactic: Cultural Hegemony
The socialist revolution in the West has been greatly influenced by the tactics of the Italian communist Antonio Gramsci. Writing in the 1930s, Gramsci recognized that the culture of the West, and in particular, the Catholic Church, stood as robust obstacles to a communist economic and political takeover in Europe. Gramsci proposed that a takeover of the cultural institutions—the achievement of cultural hegemony—was the necessary first step to the eventual takeover of the political and economic structures of a free society.
This strategy meant that socialists should tirelessly work on the takeover over of universities and education, media, churches, and other cultural intermediary structures of the free world. He thought that the eroding of the cultural foundations would weaken a free society’s natural defenses and this would open the path for the economic and political aims of the socialist revolution.
I would submit that the “cultural hegemony” of the socialist revolution is increasing in the West and at an alarming pace. The increasing loss of ground in our culture to socialism and its allies is creating a growing threat to the political and economic freedoms of America and Western democracies.
Therefore, it seems to me, the battle between the free world and the socialist revolution is far from settled. The errors of communism are legion, and the West should not slumber, as the battle is far from over.
The Errors of Communism
1. The Error Concerning the Nature of Man
Communism starts not with an economic error but an anthropological one. The economic and political effects of the communist system are but a symptom of a previous error, an error about the nature of man.
The French 19th century political economist and writer Frédéric Bastiat clearly makes the point. Socialism, Bastiat argued, sees man as mere raw material, to be disposed of, to be molded by the “all knowing,” state. In his book, The Fatal Conceit: The Errors of Socialism, economist Friedrich von Hayek launches a similar attack on the socialists and their “omniscient state.” Hayek demonstrated the impotence of the socialist to run an economy
Man is just matter: This materialist vision of man is the first and most profound error of the socialist revolution. The materialist vision of man is what justifies the communists’ insistence that they may legitimately do whatever it takes to achieve their utopia. We must be transformed by the state, into its image and likeness.
This materialist view disregards therefore the true dignity of man and the true nature of the human person—his rationality and free will. The artificial social orders engineered by socialists are completely devoid of a proper understanding of man and the kind of being that he is.
Writes Bastiat, they “… start with an idea that society is contrary to nature; devise contrivances to which humanity can be subjected; lose sight of the fact that humanity has its motive force within itself; consider men as base raw materials; propose to impart to them movement and will, feeling, and life; set oneself apart, immeasurably above the human race—these are the common practices of the social planners. The plans differ; the planners are all alike.”
Socialism and communism are fundamentally contrary to Christianity, for no Christian can hold that man is mere matter. Materialism is the exact opposite of the most basic philosophical and theological assertion of Christianity, namely that man is body and spirit.
Whittaker Chambers identified the essence of the radical revolutionary, the communist, the socialist, the radical progressive, in one key word: change. Writes Chambers, “The revolutionary heart of Communism … is a simple statement of Karl Marx… it is necessary to change the world…The tie that binds them across the frontiers of nations, across barriers of language and differences of class and education, in defiance of religion, morality, truth, law, honor, the weakness of the body and the irresolutions of the mind, even unto death, is a simple conviction: It is necessary to change the world.”
2. The Error Concerning Man’s Relation to the State
The first fundamental error leads to the second fatal error: Socialism perverts the proper relation between man and the state.
If man is just matter that needs to be molded and transformed to the will of the state (the social engineer), then indeed man is entirely subservient to the state. In this view, man is born to serve the state, from cradle to grave. Catholic social doctrine holds to the precisely opposite vision: the state exists to serve man
3. The Error Concerning Private Property
Communism, even for the amateur reader of its doctrine, considers private property a great evil in society. Since that is the theory, dispossessing millions of people of their land and putting to death untold millions more, for simply having more than others, has been the common practice of communist regimes.
The Catholic Church has always held private property to be a great good in society and has defended man’s right to private ownership as fundamentally good and compatible with man’s nature, freedom, and dignity. The Church also recognizes private property as a right absolutely necessary for the proper order and functioning of free societies. Respect for one’s neighbor’s private property rights is foundational to the Judeo-Christian doctrine. The abolition of private property under communism violates the great commandment, “Thou shalt not steal.”
This disregard for private property rights continues in our day. In 2008, the socialist President of Argentina, Cristina Kirchner, seized $29 billion of the private retirement savings of Argentinean workers, to use for what the London Telegraph described as “a funding kitty” for her socialist schemes. The Wall Street Journal characterized Kirchner’s move as “cracking open the piggybank of the nation’s private pension system.” Thou shall not steal, Kristina.
The culture of envy fostered by class-warfare violates yet another commandment, the 10th, “Thou shalt not covet thy neighbor’s goods.” To create covetousness and the willingness to dispossess those who have more is fundamentally anti-Christian.
4. The Error Concerning the Function of Government
Communism and socialism pervert the proper function of government. If man is just an inert piece of matter and is completely subservient to the state, then clearly he is incapable by his own ingenuity, entrepreneurship, abilities, and efforts, with his own failures and successes, to create anything worthwhile in society. Therefore the state, instead of protecting the framework in which man and associations can flourish, must become a social engineer, to change man, and mold him to its utopian ideals. The state proceeds to artificially create the particular conditions and relations required by ideology to achieve the utopian goals of equality and happiness for all. But the proper role of the state is not to make us happy in accordance with its own warped designs.
Since this is not easily accomplished, given that man is free and seeks happiness on his own terms, much coercion is necessary. This includes not only the coercion of the Red Army, but procedural coercion, coercion by penalties and taxation, by the use of governmental powers to force the non-compliant to comply. All of this is completely incompatible with Christianity and a free society.
5. The Error Concerning the Function of Law
Communism and socialism pervert the function of law. The rule of law under the communists and their fellow travelers is no longer a useful framework in which each man may operate freely to achieve his ends and goals. It is no longer a light to the mind, a work of reason designed to help order political and social life, forbidding the things that war against a free and just society. For the communist, law becomes a mere instrument of coercion to bend and force citizens to comply with the warped vision of society’s rulers.
Bastiat put it this way: “Socialists desire to practice ‘legal’ plunder…they desire to make the law their own weapon.”
6. The Error Concerning Christian Charity
Communism and socialism war against Christian charity.
The socialist revolution depends on so-called class warfare. This artificial warfare, in its many forms—owners of the means of production vs. the laborers, the rich vs. poor, the landowners vs. workers—is the engine that moves society toward the goals of socialism, toward the perfect egalitarian society. The principle of class warfare is flatly and completely contrary to Christianity.
Class warfare, race warfare, gender warfare, generational warfare—and all the other new rubrics for dividing citizens from one another—are intrinsically contrary to the Christian Gospel. Socialists use them all to erode the foundations of Western civilization. Socialist tactics strive to fan the flames of hatred, discord and resentment in society. They seek to create a “culture of envy” and mistrust. They therefore permanently injure the social fabric and harmony of society. Envy, the socialist “virtue,” is considered a capital sin in the Church’s doctrine. Socialism, with its class warfare, could not be more incompatible with the Church’s teaching that charity and justice are the great binding forces in society.
7. Errors Concerning the Family and Social Institutions
Communism and socialism are inimical to the family and those organizations which function as intermediary structures between the state and the individual in society. Anyone who has experienced communism need not have such an obvious matter explained. The communists without hesitation separated children from their families, mercilessly indoctrinated them and made their choice of trade or work simply a matter for a communist bureaucrat to decide. They praised and rewarded children who had denounced their parents for deviating from the doctrine and dictates of the party. This is an illegitimate intrusion on the rights of parents. Catholic social doctrine has always held that the parents, not the state, are the primary educators of children.
The Church upholds the principle of subsidiarity, which teaches that intermediary structures between the state and the citizenry must be allowed freedom to carry out their proper functions in society. These associations are a natural buffer between the state and the individual. The principle of subsidiarity guards associations, the family, and the individual against those who would promote unlimited government and their greed for power.
The current assault of the Obama administration’s Health and Human Services against Catholic healthcare institutions should surprise no one. The socialist state is required to eliminate its strongest competitors to gain greater control. The state, as it is seeking to control the health sector, one-sixth of the U.S. economy, aims to displace the Catholic Church and its mediating institutions. The state is resorting to procedural violence in order to force them to comply or renounce their right to serve the poor and the sick. Comply or get out of the way. So much for caring for the poor.
Required: A United Defense
We see that the communist and socialist state incessantly seeks to attenuate the economic, political, and cultural freedoms of each and every citizen. Therefore, communist errors concerning the nature of man and his relation to the state provide compelling motivation for opposition across the anti-communist political spectrum. All those engaged in the promotion of freedom should seek the common aim of defeating the ever increasing power of the state. Libertarians would be wise to defend the rights of the Catholic Church in its present battle against Obamacare, for in doing so, they fight to keep a safety net over the larger part of society and the individual. The fight here is not about doctrine, but about freedom for all. There is a strategic need for unity among conservatives, libertarians, and classical liberals, at this critical moment when freedom for all is threatened by the state. To continue to loose cultural freedoms is what permits, as Gramsci foresaw, the ever increasing loss in economic and political freedom.
Bastiat, in illustrating the need to defend the social order, urged a fusion of the proper defense of economic freedom and the cultural freedoms in society. The economic, cultural, and social freedoms rise and fall together, and must be defended as one. Social conservatives need to realize that if we lose economic freedom we will lose more political and cultural freedoms and therefore economics really matters. But libertarians and others should see that, by curtailing our cultural freedom, the government is gaining the ability to curtail economic freedom.
Bastiat, in his time, also urged for unity against the common foes of freedom. Speaking of the defenders of the correct conclusions in realm of economics and the defenders of virtue, religion, and ethics in society, he explained, “These two systems of ethics, instead of engaging in mutual recrimination, should be working together to attack evil at each of its poles.”
This nightmare of communism recurs in part because of our failure to theoretically dismantle the lies of the socialist revolution in the West. If this is not done well, on a fundamentally philosophical basis, we will be repeatedly assaulted by new propagandists, who—while admitting communism’s past failures in practice—once again claim that the theory is sound and therefore that the human experiment of the socialist revolution ought to be tried again. But human beings are not proper subjects of experimentation for political ideologues. We must therefore teach that the theory is erroneous, and deadly. Morally, we cannot afford more corpses to show its devastating effects in practice.
A philosophically sound and united defense by all defenders of freedom is needed at this time.
Justice for the Poor
At a practical level, the first duty of the Christian, before jumping into the arena of social policy vis-à-vis the poor, is not good intentions or a loving heart for the poor. The first necessary requirement in justice is competence. Social policy for the poor requires sound economic theory. Bad economic theory leads only to further errors in practice, which hurt the poor.
Good intentions alone do not make one competent in economic or social policy. Simply having a loving heart for the sick does not grant the doctor moral authorization to perform surgery on them. The surgeon must be competent before he picks up his scalpel. An easy indictment of capitalism and free-markets is wrong-headed and empirically inaccurate. This sort of incompetence in economic theory has hurt, and is hurting, the poor.
Believers must also make clear distinctions regarding action. There is a difference between feeding the poor and alleviating poverty per se. The latter requires the creation of economic wealth. Aiding the poor is a corporal work of mercy in the Catholic Church and it is a good to be freely exercised. But feeding the poor is quite different from alleviating poverty. If we feed a poor beggar on the street, he will remain equally poor even as he consumes the bread we have offered. Food aid to the poor does not create economic networks and economic activity capable of alleviating his poverty.
Mother Teresa was in the business of feeding and caring for the poor but she was not in the complicated business of alleviating poverty. The latter takes economic networks, entrepreneurship, creativity of a different kind, and technical know-how concerning the economy, the markets and financial policy.
Unless the poor are incorporated into economic networks, they will always be in need. To create economic networks, society requires entrepreneurship, risk takers, profit and loss, and―most important―employment. Without a job, the poor man will always be poor.
Asking people to seek a job and work has become almost taboo in the present day. Food stamps are so much easier. It is important to help the poor, but to create systematic dependency for political gain is wicked. The state loves easy handouts, since they do not pay for them and they garner votes.
Furthermore, the easy handouts obfuscate an objective view and evaluation of failed socialist economic policies. Socialists, as former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher put it, are delaying the inevitable day of reckoning―which is “…running out of other people’s money.” The façade of benevolence may win votes, but it certainly does not help the poor.
Many fail to understand that the Church has always taught what entrepreneurs know: There is a great sense of dignity in work. Since every man is a moral agent, men should not be deprived of the responsibility and adventure of forging their own paths. Caring for the poor is necessary, but intentionally increasing dependence is immoral and contrary to the Gospel teaching. It is an injustice to perpetuate economic arrangements that deprive man from working.
One could mount further arguments against the thesis that the social doctrine of the Catholic Church owes something to communism and its many incarnations. But I will conclude my arguments with the simple assertion that communism’s utopia, in which all men are equal and poverty would disappear, is a dangerous and inhuman illusion. Poverty cannot be completely eradicated from the face of the earth. Our Lord Himself taught, “The poor will always be with you.” If this profound lesson were internalized, the regimes of lethal utopia would be far less enticing.
To Truly Help the Poor
Christian charity and free market entrepreneurship are not only compatible, but necessary to truly aid the poor.
Christian charity strives for the moral betterment of man, and the advancement of our neighbor out of love. For believers, these are works of religion, which many men and women of good will willingly and freely undertake. Forcing people “to do good” is the death of the virtue of charity, as charity must always be freely exercised.
But a second factor is equally needed to alleviate poverty: entrepreneurs and the free-market system. These offer the possibility of a greater and more lasting solution to the problem of poverty. Creating jobs and industry is a great good, and to diminish the possibilities for entrepreneurs and the private sector and claim the façade of virtue in doing so, is pure folly. Entrepreneurs and the business class do more in the United States for the Church and for vital issues to society, than anywhere else in the world.
The two great lies of socialists and communists, that they are the champions of the poor and that they are the real “Christians” of our time, are myths that ought to be unmasked by all believers. For no regime has ever visited more poverty, death and suffering upon humanity. Civilization has seen clearly what this revolutionary change looks like and we would all be well advised to remember as philosopher George Santayana warned—“those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”
The West has had enough of revolutionaries and utopians. It is time for them and their supporters to pipe down and own up to their failures and crimes.
Rev. Guarnizo is a Roman Catholic priest of the diocese of Moscow. He is also a member of the Mont Pelerin society, founded by F. A. Hayek.