Skip to content

Pope Benedict XVI on the false hope of Marxism

July 6, 2009

Throughout his socio-political writings, Pope Benedict XVI exhibits at once a fascination with and a repugnance toward Marxism. He is measured in his critique of Marxist ideology, preserving those few fragments that are true while rejecting those elements contrary to an authentic anthropology. I want to draw attention to one such element, central to Marxism as a system for social restoration, which Benedict XVI acknowledges to be perhaps its most severe weakness, namely, its false promise of hope.

That Marxism is dead is no secret. Sure, there are regimes throughout the world that continue to pose as heirs to Marxism (e.g., North Vietnam, China, Cuba), but these vestibules of an expired ideology and outworn banners do no more than to remind us that the structures of Marxism have long since collapsed–not because of economic wars or brilliant pro-capitalism literature, but because of the very scaffold of the ideology itself. Marxism rose and fell according to the evidential quality of the hope it sought to inculcate among those souls who wed themselves to its promises. And, quite frankly, that hope was in vain.

The Marxists themselves admit the fall of their ideology. Consider Ronald Aronson, a self-proclaimed Marxist who has reflected deeply on the demise of the system. As his honest and stimulating work, After Marxism, Aronson candidly relates on its very first page:

Marxism is over, and we are on our own.

As Marxism’s last generation, we have been assigned by history the unenviable task of burying it. (After Marxism, 1)

When I say that Marxism is over today, then, I mean it is over in precisely this sense as a project of historical transformation. I cannot object if some people want to continue propounding and studying the theory, as philosophy or political economy, or employing it, as societal analysis, as philosophical critique of capitalism, or using any other of its fragments. They may even want to call themselves Marxists when they do so, but they must admit at the same time that they are no longer Marxists in the original sense of being partisans or allies of a Marxist project of social transformation. All such theoretical Marxisms that think practical, holistic implementation is still on the horizon are, in fact, post-Marxisms that refuse to admit it…in whatever ways its many fragments and remainders may live on, Marxism is over.

Whichever reasons Marxists may give for the death of their project, I tend to agree with Pope Benedict XVI’s opinion that it was its unfulfilled promises that led to its sudden demise. Marxism promised to heal the fourfold alienation of humanity (from nature, from work, from others, from itself) caused by the industrial movements of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries by means of a historically unfolding project of class elimination, equitable distribution of wealth, and socializing the means of production. Pope Benedict XVI describes the advent of Marx’s influence and effect:

After the bourgeois revolution of 1789, the time had come for a new, proletarian revolution: progress could not simply continue in small, linear steps. A revolutionary leap was needed. Karl Marx took up the rallying call, and applied his incisive language and intellect to the task of launching this major new and, as he thought, definitive step in history towards salvation—towards what Kant had described as the “Kingdom of God.” Once the truth of the hereafter had been rejected, it would then be a question of establishing the truth of the here and now. The critique of Heaven is transformed into the critique of earth, the critique of theology into the critique of politics. Progress towards the better, towards the definitively good world, no longer comes simply from science but from politics—from a scientifically conceived politics that recognizes the structure of history and society and thus points out the road towards revolution, towards all-encompassing change. With great precision, albeit with a certain onesided bias, Marx described the situation of his time, and with great analytical skill he spelled out the paths leading to revolution—and not only theoretically: by means of the Communist Party that came into being from the Communist Manifesto of 1848, he set it in motion. His promise, owing to the acuteness of his analysis and his clear indication of the means for radical change, was and still remains an endless source of fascination. (Spe Salvi, 20)

But the elements Marx held out as objects of hope could not be attained. The means of attaining them, over which Marx remained reticent, were unclear and, ultimately, impossible. In place of this absence came the totalitarian regimes that forcibly and violently sought to uproot and replace the modern political and economic structures at the cost, ironically, of human nature itself. The Pope outlines:

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. (Spe Salvi, 21)

Historically, the attempt to implement the Marxist programmatic has been met by wild tragedy and unceasing failure. In 1990, Pope Benedict XVI (Joseph Ratzinger) pointed to the empirical face of Marxism as evidence of its intrinsic flaws:

“[O]ne can and must say simply that Marxism failed as an all-embracing interpretation of reality and as a directive for action in history. Its promise of freedom, equality and welfare for all was not verified by the empirical facts; it was shown to be false on the basis of political and economic facts.” (Turning Point for Europe?, 82).

The Pope reiterates this empirical and historical face of Marxist violence in 1992, when he claimed that “under the rule of Marxist parties, a number of risks to man took the form of concrete political forces that were destroying the human quality of life…” (Values in a Time of Upheaval, 47)

But simply because an ideology has not historically or empirically realized itself does not of necessity mean that it is a flawed system. The Pope pressed the question further, asking whether or not Marxism is inherently flawed (and what I mean in the present context by “inherently flawed” is fundamentally inhuman). While there is much to appreciate in terms of what Marx got right in terms of the human person’s alienation, there is much more to reject in terms of who the human person is to Marx and what he envisions the human person, in community, ought to be. According to Pope Benedict XVI, the error lies in the root of Marx’s conception of human nature:

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. (Ibid.)

This passage, which highlights Marx’s implicit rejection of human freedom, compliments and completes his earlier assertion that one can judge the merit of Marxist ideology according to its historical record. In his reduction of human function to political and economic activity, Marx anticipated a perfect kingdom as the outcome of the leveling of societal inequality.

A final thought: Is it still possible to be a Marxist? With a few corrections to the theory in light of Christian revelation, can we wrap Marxism with a Catholic mantel? Can a purified Marxism work? If I am reading the Pope correctly, his answer is unequivocally negative. The heart of Marxism is dark, and if we stay faithful to Marx’s original plan, we cannot separate the theory from the practice. Pope Benedict XVI explains himself well in his Preface to the 2000 edition of his magnificent Introduction to Christianity:

Now Marx appeared to be the great guidebook. He was said to be playing now the role that had fallen to Aristotle in the thirteenth century; the latter’s pre-Christian (that is, “pagan”) philosophy had to be baptized, in order to bring faith and reason into the proper relation to each other. But anyone who accepts Marx (in whatever neo-Marxist variation he may choose) as the representative of worldly reason not only accepts a philosophy, a vision of the origin and meaning of existence, but also and especially adopts a practical program. For this “philosophy” is essentially a “praxis”, which does not presuppose a “truth” but rather creates one. Anyone who makes Marx the philosophy of theology adopts the primacy of politics and economics, which now become the real powers that can bring about salvation (and, if misused, can wreck havoc). (Introduction to Christianity, 14-15).

It seems that the Pope’s message is clear. On account of the inner logic of Marxism–and not because of any arbitrary rule of the magisterium–one cannot be a Catholic and a Marxist. Aside from a kernal or two of truth in Marx’s thought (and these the Pope has noted), Marxism and its remainders tell a lie about the truth of humanity in its deepest spiritual and social reality. Fortunately, lest any Catholic feel tempted to give himself or herself over to the seduction of Marx (and those who have studied Marx are familiar with the sweetness of that seduction), the real Marxists remind us: Marxism is over.
—————————————————————-
Ronald Aronson, After Marxism (New York/London: Guilford Press, 1995)
Pope Benedict XVI, Turning Point for Europe?: The Church in the Modern World–Assessment and Forecast (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1994)
—, Introduction to Christianity, rev. ed. (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2004)
—, Spe Salvi (encyclical letter)
—, Values in a Time of Upheaval (New York: Crossroad, 2006)

Advertisements
11 Comments
  1. Joe Hargrave permalink
    July 6, 2009 3:13 am

    This is a fascinating topic for me since I am one of those who has studied Marx. Not only did I study, I considered myself a Marxist for many years.

    I think the Pope’s commentary on Marxism is mostly accurate, which is a relief given how much Christian commentators on Marxism usually get wrong (a great deal). He is certainly correct about the fundamental error of Marxism – forgetting or minimizing free will, which is ultimately incompatible with a materialist worldview.

    I do not believe, however, that the example of Russia or any other country can be used as a true test of Marx’s theory. This is not “apologizing for Marx”. Those who have studied him know that his assumption was that socialism would first come to countries that had developed industrial capitalism. You can’t have a proletarian revolution, after all, without a proletariat, and you can’t have a proletariat without capitalism. Marx’s cautious and limited comments on Russia aside in his personal correspondence, the general belief was that socialism required a certain level of economic and cultural development – and that without it, as Marx once wrote, “all the old crap” would revive.

    This is only to say, really, that it is not the implementation of Marx that can be judged, but rather Marx’s assumptions – underestimating the tendencies in capitalism, particularly non-economic tendencies such as nationalism, for instance.

    As for the task of burying Marxism – certainly this thing called “Marxism-Leninism” is dead. But Marxism has grown to encompass so many fields that I’m not quite sure it will ever die. To the extent which a historical materialist analysis of every conceivable economic, social, and cultural phenomenon has become standard practice in the universities, I would say it is still alive.

    For my part, I think we can even see in Pope Benedict’s words that there is something in the analysis of capitalism to be salvaged. Certainly recognizing that the rate of profit will decline, and the political implications of that process, does not compel one to accept the whole Marxist political program. After all, Mussolini began his career as a Marxist, and retaining the same premises, believed that the fascist state was necessary to prevent a revolution. A similar process took place in Britain and the United States during the same time, where a greater role for government in the economy, the expansion of workers rights, and the promotion of consumerism were consciously implemented to stave off the very forces Marx believed would consume capitalism.

    So, in a way, I think Catholic social teaching also partially owes its existence to Marxism, since it too had the goal of warning against the catastrophic consequences of revolution and establishing more firmly the rights of the worker. And since many of those same tendencies are still alive today, I think we ignore the Marxist critique of capitalism at our own peril.

  2. July 6, 2009 7:10 am

    I rather agree with Joe – how one can assert Marxism is dead I do not know: since it is employed as a theoretical tool in countless academic critiques of capitalism and its various institutions.

    I also feel that Christianity itself has a ‘dark heart’ – lets not forget the bloody history of the catholic church.

    The Pope’s disappointment that Marx failed to specify how things would be organized post-revolution is absurd – Marxism is not a failsafe blueprint for a crude New World Order (as most would have it) but a philosophy – lets not forget that.

    And lets not forget that Marx was one of the most radical and original philosophers of all time – and we ignore him, as Joe says ‘at our peril’.

    • July 6, 2009 8:55 am

      how one can assert Marxism is dead I do not know: since it is employed as a theoretical tool in countless academic critiques of capitalism and its various institutions.

      Notice that even a card-carrying Marxist like Aronson admits that Marxism is dead. But he, like the Pope, is careful to qualify this remark in saying that that Marxism as a real, historical project is dead. This is why I mention in the post that certain remainders of Marxism, such as the purely theoretical element of critique, is not dead. My post trades on the distinction between Marxism as a concrete system and Marxism as a intellectual tool. The latter, which you seem to be referring to, is most certainly alive in certain circles. But the project of political and economic transformation is no longer alive.

      • Joe Hargrave permalink
        July 6, 2009 12:07 pm

        Aronson is one man, though. I know from personal experience that there are still many holdouts for the transformation project.

  3. July 6, 2009 3:44 pm

    Óscar Romero y sus companeros FTW!

    In all seriousness, though, I’m not convinced Marxism is dead. It continues to inspire action on the ground in South America and in other places around the world (i.e. the ongoing Naxalite rebellion in India).

    And in a more “first world” context, let’s not forget the Catholic Worker Movement. Okay, so maybe it’s more “anarchist” than “Marxist” per se, but nevertheless the parallels are there. The first copy of The Catholic Worker was sold at a Communist Party rally, after all.

    Call me crazy, but these so-called “fringe” RC movements have always seemed to me to be more interesting, and to possess more integrity and vitality than the ossified Orthodoxy of the Holy See. For that matter, they also seem to me to have more in common with the teachings and lifestyle of a certain radical Jewish troublemaker, than most of the Pontificates on their golden thrones. But then this is probably why I am not a Roman Catholic.

  4. July 6, 2009 4:10 pm

    It seems a bit presumptuous to say that ‘the project of political and economic transformation is no longer alive’ – and it also infers that one can see all ends. One thing Marx did say is that a person most belongs to a class when he least believes himself to belong to one. That capitalism has successfully adapted so far to what could be seen as its contradictions does not mean it can do so forever – it is fair to say that to adopt this view means that one surrenders oneself to the belief in an all encroaching, totalitarian regime (global capitalism) – which is ironic since many Marxists are criticised of adhering to an all-encompassing doctrine .

    When Joe says: ‘He is certainly correct about the fundamental error of Marxism – forgetting or minimizing free will, which is ultimately incompatible with a materialist worldview’; I do not believe he is entirely correct – if Marx did not allow for agency it is very difficult to see how he thought a revolution to come about – he makes the rallying cry in his Communist Manifesto: ‘you have nothing to lose but your chains’…if this is not a call to human action then I don’t know what is.

    It also seems strange that most critics of Marxism regard it to be economically deterministic – and yet the very same critics are usually the first to acknowledge that the institutions and products of capitalism are ultimately responsible for the socialisation of individuals, and that they determine and/or heavily influence beliefs and behaviours (for example it is widely recognised and upheld that the mass media has a profound effect on people, especially regarding youth culture, body image…and popular culture in general). It seems a bit silly then, to accuse Marxism of ‘determinism’.

    One thing Marx gave us was an alternative – it may have serious flaws – but I think its fair to say there aren’t many other near credible alternatives to capitalism – nor any that offer equal theoretical complexity. And Marxism should not be seen as some kind of sacred thing that cannot be altered or modified, but as a living philosophy that changes with the times – just as neoliberalism has.

  5. Joe Hargrave permalink
    July 6, 2009 4:30 pm

    “if Marx did not allow for agency it is very difficult to see how he thought a revolution to come about – he makes the rallying cry in his Communist Manifesto: ‘you have nothing to lose but your chains’…”

    That’s kind of the point, though. If you have nothing left to lose ‘but your chains’, it is a way of saying you have no choice but to make a revolution.

    Marxists have been debating the extent to which Marx recognized free will and the extent of the role it plays in the revolutionary project for over 100 years. I’d say Marx overestimated the prospects of class loyalty while underestimating nationalism and religion. In his atheistic materialism, Marx offered no coherent moral vision. He and Engels were convinced that Christianity had brought man low, and that the revolutionary current of which they were a part, going back to the Enlightenment, would exalt and glorify man.

    With no understanding of the human soul or the sin to which it can become enslaved, and with a rather naive belief in the ability of social institutions to shape a ‘better’ man, I’d say Marxism was and will remain bound to fail.

    That said, I still think the economic critique of capitalism is useful, and even historical materialism, as a method as opposed to a philosophy, is a useful way of looking at certain historical developments.

  6. July 6, 2009 5:26 pm

    I think it is clear that there is some confusion regarding Marxism as Marx actually conceived it and the remainders of Marxisms that remain either philosophical/political ideas or exotic curiosities. Pope Benedict and Aronson are referring to the former. It seems to me that this discussion has shifted toward the latter.

    Aronson is one man, though. I know from personal experience that there are still many holdouts for the transformation project.

    I do not deny that there are holdouts (my office stood next to that of self-proclaimed Marxist at Texas A&M). What I do deny, and what an increasing number of genuine Marxists deny, is that Marxism has any historical viability anymore. To envisage the Marxist transformation is certainly not impossible; the concrete implementation and sustaining of a robust Marxist project no longer seems possible.

    And Marxism should not be seen as some kind of sacred thing that cannot be altered or modified, but as a living philosophy that changes with the times – just as neoliberalism has.

    With this, along with much of what you have written, I agree. But you seem to be arguing on a theoretical, philosophical plane. Of course Marxism is alive as and idea and foil for capitalist critique. But notice that Aronson and the Pope are speaking specifically of historical viability.

    It continues to inspire action on the ground in South America and in other places around the world (i.e. the ongoing Naxalite rebellion in India).

    Sure, Marxism inspires movements (I have never denied its theoretical force in contemporary philosophical and political thought). But Marx did not aim to inspire merely, but to bring about a revolution that would coalesce into a progressive new order of social exchange. It seems that Marx’s Hegelianism has been forgotten in this combox exchange–there is a dialectical historical progression in Marx’s philosophy that simply has turned out to be false (much like the historical progress models of Hegel and Kant). That’s why Marxism as a concrete program is no longer possible–the historical antecedents which make up the very conditions of its possibility are absent.

    And in a more “first world” context, let’s not forget the Catholic Worker Movement. Okay, so maybe it’s more “anarchist” than “Marxist” per se, but nevertheless the parallels are there. The first copy of The Catholic Worker was sold at a Communist Party rally, after all.

    As Dorothy Day relates in her autobiographical works, the Catholic Worker repudiates Marxism. She and Peter Maurin, who was the intellectual force behind the movement, modeled their houses after the distributist theories of Chesterton and Belloc, the personalism of Mournier and Maritain, and the corporeal works of mercy of the Bible. Indeed, the Catholic Worker as it was conceived by Day and Maurin is utterly irreconcilable to Marxism.

  7. Joe Hargrave permalink
    July 6, 2009 6:16 pm

    “I think it is clear that there is some confusion regarding Marxism as Marx actually conceived it and the remainders of Marxisms that remain either philosophical/political ideas or exotic curiosities. Pope Benedict and Aronson are referring to the former. It seems to me that this discussion has shifted toward the latter.”

    Maybe so, but there really is a problem with the Benedict/Aronson argument; namely that socialism “as Marx actually conceived it” never existed and thus could never be tested. When Pope Benedict says, mentions Russia and Lenin while criticizing the notion that the right economy will produce the right kind of society, I have to say that Marx certainly wouldn’t have viewed the Soviet economy at any stage as “socialist”.

    It’s a minor point because I think even a socialist economy that functioned well, and under all the right conditions, shouldn’t be guided by orthodox Marxism, with its extreme hatred of religion.

    “What I do deny, and what an increasing number of genuine Marxists deny, is that Marxism has any historical viability anymore.”

    It isn’t that I disagree with this, though I may have different reasons for doing so. But I would question who is a “genuine Marxist”. Those who still believe in the project would consider themselves the genuine Marxists, and they would consider those who have given up on it as those who were never genuine to begin with. It may seem like a fringe, but in one way or another either Trotskyists, Marxist-Leninists or Maoists are pulling the strings of the anti-war movement. I mention this only to show that it is not just in academia, but in practical politics, that they are active.

    Bottom line is, I don’t think you can invoke the authenticity of someone like Aronson as evidence in the case against Marxism. His arguments may be valid, but the fact that he considered himself a genuine, orthodox Marxist is really not too relevant when there are still plenty of people around who wear that label (with some justification) and who couldn’t disagree more with him. And even if there were no one around, of course, an argument stands or falls on its own merits, and does not depend on the person who makes it.

    “there is a dialectical historical progression in Marx’s philosophy that simply has turned out to be false”

    I’d also be very careful about this as well. Often times I see the ‘five stage’ model pulled out of “The German Ideology”, an early manuscript that wasn’t even published in Marx’s lifetime and can’t really be held to be reflective of his more developed views. The model he develops later in his career is better; simple commodity production, to generalized commodity production, to planned production.

    Certainly it isn’t false that we have moved from a mode of production where commodity production and exchange is accidental and spontaneous to one in which it is the conscious aim of most production, or “generalized”. The question is, can humanity move beyond commodity production? The assumption is that the constant improvement of technology will give is the means to do so. Where Marx falls short is not in his assessment of the technical means of moving out of commodity production, but the human will to do so.

    This is why fascism and later social democracy triumphed in the West while Marxism failed. Marx did not understand politics or mass psychology. He devoted his life to the study of history and economics. Lenin and Mao understood politics, but they were elsewhere – they didn’t have to deal with a ‘proletariat’ that had become quite comfortable under a reformed capitalism.

    Anyway, this is a fascinating conversation and I hope we keep it going. Please don’t mistake whatever polite disagreements I show here as either an endorsement or a defense of Marxism (I don’t think you will, but it always helps to have a disclaimer). I’m definitely a distributist and a communitarian myself. But I still borrow from Marx here and there.

  8. Ben permalink
    December 13, 2009 6:12 pm

    Joe Hargrave is right that the Soviet Union was never a communist country. Marx actually wrote a letter to a Russian Socialist saying that if Russia tried to cheat the dialectic, to leap straight from feudalism to socialism, without there already being several socialist countries, that Russia would end up as a capitalist country. That is exactly what happened. It is also what happened in China, Vietnam, North Korea, and all of the other so called “socialist” countries, none of which were ever really socialist. Joe’s comment about Marx having an “extreme hatred of religion” is false. Marx’s phrase, “the opium of the people” is taken out of context. Marx was actually using the analogy to explain why religion had so much meaning to so many, namely, suffering. Look up the whole quote some time and see for yourself.
    As for the “dialectic of history”, let’s face it. History has moved through certain stages; primative communism, slavery, feudalism, and now capitalism. The only stage left is for the workers to overthrow the capitalist sytem and to take control of the means of production themselves. Socialism is really nothing more than an economy of worker collectives which are run dempcratically.
    The argument over economic determinism is one based on a lot of misunderstandings. The Pope’s statement “man is still man” is built on a common, but false assumption (one I believed until recently), that of an inmutable and evil human nature. Studies have shown that cooperation and helping others causes the brain to release the same hormone as the one that is released when people have sex. Given that the Church seems to believe that sex is an unquenchable human desire, wouldn’t cooperation and social solidarity have to be as well? The reason that it doesn’t appear so is because capitalism rewards greed and antisocial behavior. An economic system in which people run the companies together would allow the good side of human nature to show. Furthermore, Marx did not believe, and no one would assert that economics is the sole determinant of human history, rather, he said that it is the primary determinant. This is obviously true. What is the first demand of humans? For food, clothing, shelter, etc., ie. economic factors. When society was based on slavery, an ideology justifying slavery was created. Now, there is a huge mass of ideology supporting capitalism. One of the main compnents of this ideology is the notion that people are fundamentally evil. St. Paul provided, almost 2000 years in advance, a statement that gets to the bottom of Marx’s beliefs about the cause of the world’s problems, “The love of money is the root of all evil” 1Tim 6:10. The Pope has condemmed capitalism. There is only one alternative left, a worker run economic democracy, ie. socialism/Marxism.
    Marxism is not dead. There is no fundamental reason for it to be so. It has never been tried. Capitalism is the same now as it was 150 years ago. Only the misunderstanding of Marxism prevents its adoption. If you want a better understanding of these topics and others in the modern world, I highly recommend the blog Nonviolent Jesus.

Trackbacks

  1. First Thoughts — A First Things Blog

Comments are closed.

%d bloggers like this: