A Socialist Labor Party Statement—

The Church and the Class Struggle

Making an anachronistic moral philosophy appear relevant to the modern world and presenting the Roman Catholic Church as the champion of the poor without alienating that church from the world’s ruling classes take a bit of doing. In his recent encyclical, “On Human Work,” Pope John Paul II demonstrated he was equal to the task. His method was to resort to a combination of unsubstantiated premises, bold assertions, vague generalities and semantic gymnastics.

The encyclical articulates a strategy for workers that supposedly will allow them to achieve “social justice” within the existing social order. The pope not only calls attention to “the dignity and rights of those who work,” he declares that “the principle of the priority of labor over capital is a postulate of the order of social morality.” He does this even as he upholds the “right to private property even when it is a question of the means of production” and condemns “the program of collectivism as proclaimed by Marxism.”

With much of the world’s working class still under the ideological influence of the Catholic Church, a response to its political statement is incumbent upon the socialist movement. For not only would the pope’s suggested strategy prove to be a dead end for workers, its actual purpose is to harness labor to the Catholic Church, as part of the church’s never-ending struggle to reestablish itself as the dominant class in society.

Papal Obscurantism

The encyclical “On Human Work” is premised on false, self-serving contentions. It asserts that some of the basic problems of capitalism—the commodity status of labor, oppressive working conditions, even exploitation—are not caused by the nature of the system, or by the fact that there are two classes with conflicting material interests, but by non-Christian attitudes on the part of individual capitalists. The pope also contends that while such attitudes “have almost disappeared,” other “ideological or power systems, and new relationships...have allowed flagrant injustices to persist or have created new ones.”

Explaining his theory of “early capitalism,” the pope claims that “the system of injustice and harm...that weighted heavily upon workers in that period of rapid industrialization” was a consequence of “the liberal sociopolitical system, which in accordance with its ‘economistic’ premises, strengthened and safeguarded economic initiatives by the possessors of capital alone, but did not pay sufficient attention to the rights of the workers, on the grounds that human work is solely an instrument of production....” He goes on to say that any time workers are “treated” that way, the “error of early capitalism will be repeated.”

The pope says that the church will fight such treatment by counterposing “the Christian truth about work”—that “man” is “the true purpose of the process of production.” Sexist vernacular aside, there are few who would disagree that that should be the case. But the pope’s suggestion that that goal can be attained by a mere change of attitude has no basis in reality.

Commodity Status of Labor

In contrast, Socialists recognize that capitalism necessarily treats work as “an instrument of production,” and that this is not an ideological creation that can be changed by capitalists mending their ways. Nor is it a phenomenon that has “almost disappeared.”

Under capitalism, ownership of the means of production is effectively restricted to a tiny segment of the population—the capitalist class. (The fact that everyone has the abstract “right” to start their own business doesn’t give them the capital with which to do so.) The vast majority of the population—the working class—have no means by which to make a living save by selling their labor power to a capitalist (or the state). Labor power is bought and sold on a labor market; it is in fact a commodity. Treating labor power as an instrument of production is therefore intrinsic to capitalism.

On the job, workers are told what to produce and are driven to produce as much as possible. Unless pressured by a strike, the capitalists will do little or nothing to improve working conditions, not even those relating to workers’ health and safety.

Inherent Exploitation

Even if some capitalists were to take a more charitable attitude, none of this would change because of the competitive pressure of the market. If a corporate board or a particular capitalist enterprise was to become benevolent and voluntarily increase workers’ wages and improve working conditions, this would necessarily entail reductions in profits. The company in question would be unable to compete successfully. It would lose its share of the market for its product, as other companies could and would sell for less. The price of such benevolence would be eventual bankruptcy. Under capitalism, nice guys do finish last.

The pope even regards exploitation as an attitude problem. He states, “Isolating these means [of production] as a separate property in order to set it up in the form of capital in opposition to labor—and even to practice exploitation of labor—is contrary to the very nature of these means and their possession.”

But the fact is that private possession of the means of production inevitably results in exploitation. It is inexorably “in opposition to labor.” Capitalists only employ workers when they can be reasonably assured that the value of the workers’ product at every stage of production will exceed the value of the workers’ wages, creating what Marxists call “surplus value.” In other words, all capitalist production is premised upon exploitation, upon paying workers far less in wages than the value of what they produce. Consequently, to argue that exploitation is “contrary” to capitalist ownership is ludicrous.

Role of Private Property

The conflicts resulting from private ownership, the social nature of production and the collective need for the goods produced apparently present the pope with something of a dilemma. He finds it necessary on the one hand to emphasize the church’s defense of private property, and on the other hand to give lip service to the principle that the goods produced must serve the common good. Accordingly, he attempts to draw a distinction between the traditional capitalist concept and the church’s concept of private property.

But first he utters the caution that the principle taught by the church “diverges radically from the program of collectivism as proclaimed by Marxism.” He then contends that “Christian tradition” has never upheld the right to ownership or property “as absolute and untouchable.“

“On the contrary,” he adds, “it has always understood this right within the broader context of the right common to all to use the goods of the whole of creation: the right to private property is subordinate to the right to common use, to the fact that goods are meant for everyone.”

This view is not in strict accordance with the concept expressed in the 1891 encyclical by Pope Leo XIII on “The Condition of Labor,” which has since been considered the definitive statement on Roman Catholic social doctrine. There it was bluntly stated that “the community of goods must be utterly rejected” because, among other things, “it would be contrary to the natural rights of mankind.”

Unions and the Church

No doubt fully alert to the instinctive and recurring tendency of workers to organize, the pope endorses their “right to association.” He strives mightily, however, to disabuse any notion that unions are or should be a weapon in the class struggle. They are, he declares, “advocates” for the struggle for some undefined “social justice.” That struggle, he says, “should be seen as a normal endeavor ‘for’ the just good but it is not a struggle ‘against’ others.

“Even if in controversial questions the struggle takes on a character of opposition toward others, this is because it aims at the good of social justice, not for the sake of ‘struggle’ or in order to eliminate the opponent....In the final analysis, both those who work and those who manage the means of production or who own them must in some way be united in this community.”

Some observers believe that the pope’s comments on unions were largely intended for Poland’s Solidarity union, appealing to it to take a moderate stance. Indeed, much of the encyclical, which used the word “solidarity” repeatedly, could have been directed at Solidarity. And the church would no doubt prefer not to see the foothold it has gained in Poland wiped out by a Soviet invasion.

However, the fact is that the church has always and everywhere opposed anything resembling socialism or the collectivism of Marxism, to use its words. It does not encourage workers to take hold of and control the means of production, for that would ruin its own plans for a subjugated working class. Moreover, the elimination of oppression and human suffering on earth that socialism could achieve would be a blow to the church’s ideological precepts (humans are born to suffer, are innately sinful, etc.) and to the “reasons” for its existence.

The Church’s Goal

That the Catholic Church seeks a world order based on its own rule is no matter of idle speculation. As Daniel De Leon observed: “Creeds being in their essence political, they fatedly reflect economic and social, in short, material conditions—and struggle for the same. As a final consequence, every creed, like every political party, naturally and sincerely holds all others wrong, itself alone the one entitled to survive.”

Pope Pius XI confirmed this view in his 1931 encyclical on “Reconstructing the Social Order.” There he spoke of a “perfect order...which places God as the first and supreme end of all created activity, and regards all created goods as mere instruments under God.”

Back in medieval days, when the church’s power was at its height, popes were even less subtle about their plans for humanity. Pope Innocent III left little doubt as to the nature of the church’s earthly mission when he declared that “everything in the world is the province of the Pope” and that Christ had commissioned St. Peter “to govern not only the universal Church but all the secular world.”

The Socialist Goal

In contrast to the church’s vision of a world hierarchical order based on blind faith and acceptance of human suffering, Socialists advocate a cooperative commonwealth of labor, free of exploitation and oppression.

Unlike the Catholic vision, socialism is no pipe dream. It does not seek to end exploitation and oppression by appealing to the oppressor class to be more benevolent, but by organizing to overthrow that class. It does not base its vision on idealistic premises, but on concrete facts. It boldly proclaims that capitalist/state ownership of the industries and exploitation of the working class is the root of workers’ misery; that the means to provide material abundance for all, at a fraction of the work time presently required, objectively exists but cannot be realized due to this capitalist/state ownership.

To create socialism, workers will need unions, but not of the class-collaborationist variety advocated by the pope and exemplified by the AFI-CIO and other unions that prevail in the United States today. To serve their interests, workers need industrially based unions that recognize the fact of the class struggle and are oriented toward winning it, not toward reconciling workers to accept continued exploitation. In accordance with socialist principles, these unions must be democratically controlled by the rank and file, not hierarchically controlled by bureaucratic labor merchants (or by the Catholic Church!).

So organized, Socialist Industrial Unions could unite to form one big union, with the power to overthrow the capitalist class. And they would elect accountable representatives, subject to the democratic mandates of the workers themselves, to coordinate production in each industry and in the economy as a whole to meet the objectives of a socially determined plan. In this manner, the socialist goal of a democratically controlled economy and classless society could be realized.

For the workers of the world the choice is clear: The course advocated by the Catholic Church offers nothing but more of the same—at best. But the course advocated by the Socialist Labor Party offers the potential to end human suffering—in this life.



Socialist Labor Party of America, P.O. Box 218, Mountain View, CA 94042-0218 • www.slp.org • socialists@slp.org

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