Thursday, February 07, 2008

Liberalism and Socialism

by Msgr. John A. Ryan


"The question which agitates the world to-day," Ozanam had written long before the fateful events of the year 1848, "is not a question of persons, nor of politics, but a social questions." Carefully and accurately he had read the signs of the time. When the great industrial system of our age was far from its present development and when many of the clearest minds in Europe were but little dreaming of the coming issues, he had already sounded the problem of the future. In a letter to Foisset occur the following memorable lines:

The questions which will occupy the minds of men are the questions of labor, of wages, of industry, of economics.


When the Revolution broke out Ozanam beheld the realization of what he had long foreseen: that it is impossible for any modern government to endure, no matter what may be its form, if it does not give to social questions a first place in its considerations. In a letter addressed to his brother, the Abbe Ozanam, dated March 6, 1848, and published for the first time by Duthoit, in Livre du Centenaire, he contrasted the revolutions of 1830 and 1848. The former, he held, was political; the latter, social. The one was of interest to the educated classes, but the other of intense moment for the common people. It was all a question of labor organization, of hours of work and of wages.

We must not imagine that we can escape these problems. If men think that they can satisfy the people by giving them primary assemblies, legislative councils, new magistrates, consuls or a president, they are sadly mistaken. Within a decade of years, and perhaps sooner, the old difficulties will return.

On the other hand, he candidly confessed that these problems cannot be touched without involving the entire financial, commercial and industrial order:

If the State intervenes between employers and employed to determine the wages, that liberty by which commerce has hitherto been nourished will cease to exist, until it can reestablish itself under the new laws. God knows what times, what difficulties, what sufferings we shall have to pass through!


History has since borne evidence to the truth of all these statements, and the world has again been facing the crisis here described. There can be no question of peace until we have solved the problem presented by our modern industrial system, and have provided for a more reasonable distribution of wealth. No coercive features can be of any avail. So, after the days of the bloody Revolution, Ozanam wrote:

The danger which you congratulate yourselves that you no longer see upon the public streets has hidden itself in the larders of the houses that skirt them. You have crushed the revolt; there remains an enemy with which you are not sufficiently acquainted, Misery.


In his description of the two extreme and contradictory economic systems then proposed for the solution of the social question, Osanam was no less happy and accurate than Bishop Ketteler. The first of these was that individualism, or Liberalism, as it was ordinarily called, which left the weak at the mercy of the strong in the bitter economic straggle. Non-interference, except to safeguard the individual labor contract, no matter how unnatural and irrational, was held to be the sole duty of the State in the industrial question. labor organizations were strictly interdicted and hunted to the earth, as preventing the normal development of supply and demand which it was believed would of itself solve all problems.

The connection between the Reformation and the evils of modern industrialism is already clearly traced by Ozanam. Individual reason, he argues, became supreme under the new doctrine. The effect was indifference in matters of Faith, leading to deism, pantheism and atheism. To these succeeded the utilitarian doctrines of the economists and the dreams of humanitarianism. Thus through many transformations rationalism finally sprang into being. The will of the individual was confounded with the Divine will, private rights knew no limits except private pleasure. With the disappearance of the idea of right that of duty likewise vanished. The way was clear for the system of individualism or Liberalism to which the origin of all our modern economic evils must be ascribed. Socialism itself is the child of Liberalism, sprung from the parent it hates, like Death from the brain of Sin. Where Liberalism has transgressed, Socialism reaps the havoc.

The equal unsoundness of the Socialistic system Ozanam recognized at first glance. In his description of it, in spite of the changes which years have wrought, we still find those very characteristics which to-day call for the condemnation not merely of Socialism, but of all the measures of exaggerated State control, destructive alike of the best interests of family and community. Ozanam writes:

Never has Christianity consented to that enforced Communism which seizes upon the human person at his birth, thrusts him into the national school and the national workshops, makes of him nothing more than a soldier, without any will of his own, in the industrial army, a wheel without intelligence in the machine of the State. Thus between the individualism of the last century and the Socialism of the present, Christianity alone has foreseen the only possible solution of the formidable question which we are now facing, and alone has arrived at the point to which the more intelligent minds return to-day, after their wide circuit, when they insist upon association, but voluntary association.


Especially worthy of note is his summary of the characteristics of the two schools we have here considered:

The old [i.e. the individualistic] school of economics knew no greater social danger than insufficient production; no other welfare than to urge and multiply it by an unlimited competition; no other law of labor than personal interest: the interest of the most insatiable of masters. On the other side, the school of modern Socialism traced all evil to a vicious distribution, and believed it could save society by suppressing competition, by making of the organization of labor a prison which would feed its prisoners; by urging the people to exchange their liberty for the certainty of bread and the promise of pleasure. These two systems, of which one made the destiny of man to consist in production, the other in enjoyment, lead by two different ways into the same materialism.


This indeed is an accurate analysis of the entire situation, and deserves the closest study. These two schools are with us still, though other elements must also be considered in our day, such as a really harmful underproduction and the danger of organized labor forgetting the supreme interest of the common good.

In his discussion on property the great Trench layman bases all his arguments upon Saint Thomas, and in defining its duties and circumscribing its rights he speaks in terms which anticipate in a striking way the statements of Pope Leo XIII, in his encyclical upon Labor.

With keen insight he remarks that when "an error touches property it is not far from laying its hands upon the family," a fact we see so fully realized in the actual propaganda of Socialism. This latter theory, he shows, is nothing new; but tinder various semblances had been incorporated in ancient paganism and in the sects of the early Church. But the sectaries at least did not pretend that by suppressing property they would save the family. Between Manicheism and Socialism he sees more than, an accidental similarity. Both were a menace to the cradle and the hearth. While Socialism, it is true, deals only with productive property, yet its principles, as we find them propounded by many of its leading exponents and often put in practice, strike directly at the Seventh and Tenth Commandments, while its attitude towards matrimony, as expressed in the official organs of the party and the literature circulated by it, is sufficiently familiar.

Erom the insistence, however, with, which this error perpetually returns through the centuries, he argues that we would strive in vain to put it down by the anathemas of authority or the rigors of the law, that it is seated in the deepest and most piteous wounds of human nature. Theology, philosophy and jurisprudence may refute it, as they have done in the past, but it will perpetually reassert itself. It is one of the great problems which Providence uses to Its own wonderful ends. But in the very persistence of this error he likewise sees the reason for confidence:

Since the doctrines subversive to the family and to property, which ever waited at the gate of Christian society ready to seize the favorable moment for falling upon it, have had circumstances so favorable to their designs as the ruin of the Roman Empire and the barbarian invasion, as the internal dissensions of France from the time of the Shepherds to the uprising of the Fanners, and as the wars of religion and the ruin of the social order in the north of Europe; since, furthermore, in spite of all this daring, bravery and strength, they have in every instance been wrecked upon the soundness of civilization, there is consequently no reason any longer for being frightened at them as at some new unwonted peril. We may count upon the conscience and the good sense of the people who have resisted these temptations throughout eighteen centuries. We may count upon the power of Christianity, which has never failed to reject with the same firmness Socialistic errors and egoistic passions, which contains all the truths preached by modern reformers and none of iheir illusions, which alone is able to realize the ideal of fraternity without sacrificing liberty, of seeking the greatest earthly good for man without robbing him of that sacred gift of resignation, the surest remedy of sorrow and the last word in a life which must end.


The Church, he writes, as if in answer to the latest jibe against her, has preached the duty of brotherhood and the honor of poverty throughout the ages; but she has pleased neither the unprincipled rich, who trembled at the vae divitibus "Woe to you that are rich," nor the evil-minded poor, who see in the doctrine of resignation only an artifice of the clergy, and who, therefore, accuse the Church of holding the Gospel captive, while they themselves give it their own materialistic sense, substituting "a community of pleasures for a community of sacrifice."

We have thus far considered mainly tibe general attitude of Ozanam towards the two great schools of economic thought which, in their basic principles, still exist to-day.

Interview with Thomas Storck

On Cooperative Ownership

John Médaille Interview in Romania

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