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Cardinal Marx, Karl Marx, Catholic Social Teaching and the critique of capitalism

Mphuthumi Ntabeni has been following the heated-debate that raged around comments that were made by Cardinal Reinhard Marx, the Archbishop of Munich-Freising, about Karl Marx. He said that Catholic Social Teaching is not too far from the thought of Marx. Ntabeni thinks that the debate is ill-informed.

The Archbishop of Munich-Freising, Cardinal Reinhard Marx, sparked controversy when he recently declared that without Karl Marx, whose bicentenary is celebrated this year, there would be no Catholic Social Teaching (CST). He is one of the nine cardinals who sits on the council that advises Pope Francis.

I think that the controversy around his remarks is ill-informed. In a strict sense CST precedes The Communist Manifesto (CM) – written by Marx and Engels. There’s strong evidence which suggests that the CM was influenced by the socialist critique of capitalism from the likes of Henri de Saint-Simon. The brilliance of CM was its scientific study which elevated socialism from mere utopian speculation into historicity which was backed by sociological evidence. Frederick Engels later wrote a book, Socialism: Utopian and Scientific, to distinguish the propagation of communism from utopian socialism.

Marx was also heavily influenced by the Hegelian dialectical process of history that goes back as far as Aristotle in written form. Aristotle believed that material interest rules supreme in political matters, this gave birth to what became known as ‘materialism’, which Marx drove to its logical conclusion as the organising economic principle.

The major difference in these socialist ideologies is that utopian socialism does not prepare the way for a revolution, even though it believes the perfect society will be when workers own the means of production. It believes this can be achieved without violence.

The ideology of Communism believes in a violent revolutionary upheaval which will transfer the means of production into the hands of the workers. It also believes that the owners (capitalists) will never voluntarily hand over the means of production to the workers. Communist theory holds that the advancement of capitalism will usher in conducive conditions for an upheaval, due to the internal systemic contradictions it brings – in a minor form – of periodic financial crises. Marx and Engels, though great admirers of the innovative power of the capitalist system, believed it is flawed in its essence and creates its own end in the workers.

CST agrees with the socialist critique of extreme liberal individualism. But it does not believe in materialism as the basic form of human economic organisation. In fact, this is a curious thing within CST since the church's thinking is heavily influenced by Aristotle, through St Thomas Aquinas. Most people wrongly associate the birth of materialism as a philosophy of Karl Marx. The materialistic view of history goes back to Aristotle in written form. He claimed that, that which is good for a person or a group rules supreme in political matters. The thought developed, through John Locke, Adam Smith etc. Marx found it in Hegel and used it as his organising principle.

The major contribution of the CM was in making the social question into not just an organising principle, but a political force. CST was quick to oppose Communism with the 1849 encyclical, Nostis Et Nobiscum, followed by the Quanta Cura in 1864. But it took up the CM critique of the capitalist system in Rerum Novarum in 1891. But it still defined Communism as “a system that violates basic human rights” – like the right to own property. By 1931 when Pope Pius XI published Quadragesimo Anno the Church was actively opposed to Communism for its religious persecutions in countries like USSR, China and Mexico.

Though CST was influenced by the spirit of the CM, it clearly differs from Communism. CST is against the dictatorship of both capital and workers. It does not believe that a violent revolution is necessary to change the ownership of the means of production. CST, since Quadragesimo Anno, has advocated a more communitarian spirit, promoting corporatism in business practices which must incorporate worker representatives in decision making, and establish solidarity among workers that were becoming popular during the then feudal era – the seedlings of later worker unions.

But Cardinal Marx is correct, CST is often referred to as ordoliberal, which is heavily influenced by the diagnostic critique of capitalism found in the CM and The Capital. Even these suggest different solutions to those of communism. Karl Marx is the directing background hand in all critiques of capitalism – none have, to date, surpassed his sterling work. Curiously, it is this that has, at times, opened the church to abuse by fundamentalists who claim her teachings to be communist. It is not unknown for them to liken the church to the lady riding the beast in chapter 17 of the biblical book, Revelations.

Image: A compilation from Wikipedia.

* The opinions expressed here by Spotlight.Africa contributors and editors are their own and not official statements of the Society of Jesus in South Africa or of the Catholic Church unless explicitly stated.