Max Shachtman & Father Owen Rice


A Debate on the Social Philosophy of
Marxism vs. Catholicism

(November 1948)

From The New International, Vol. XV No. 1, January 1949, pp. 3–14.
Copied with thanks from the Workers’ Liberty Website.
Marked up by A. Forse for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.
Proofread and compared with the original text in The New International by Einde O’Callaghan (August 2018).

The following debate on the Catholic versus the Marxist social philosophy was held on November 12, 1948, in the auditorium of the North Side Unitarian Church of Pittsburgh, under the auspices of the Citizens Forum of that city.

Representing the Catholic point of view was Father Charles Owen Rice, leader of the Pittsburgh branch of the Association of Catholic Trade Unionists, director of Americans for Democratic Action (ADA), and well known for his activities in political and charitable movements.

Representing the socialist point of view was Max Shachtman, the national chairman of the Workers Party.

Acting as moderator in the debate was Dr. Robert W. Lawson, of the Citizens Forum and the North Side Unitarian Church.

Arrangements for the debate were as follows:

Father Rice presented his point of view for thirty-five minutes, followed by a presentation of equal length by Comrade Shachtman. Members of the audience then addressed questions to either or both of the speakers for a period of time. Fifteen-minute summaries were then made by each of the speakers, Comrade Shachtman speaking first and Father Rice last. The meeting was adjourned with a standing vote of thanks to the speakers by the audience of 250.

The entire debate was recorded on wire through the courtesy of Dr. Lawson. The question period, however, was only partially recorded, and of those questions and answers which were recorded, parts of some of the questions and parts of some of the answers appear to have been chopped off or recorded indistinctly. We publish below the two presentations and summaries.

The transcription from the wire-recording was made by the office of The New International, and carefully checked several times for verbatim accuracy. (In this connection, the Editors wish to extend their thanks to Comrade Macy for his services in performing this job.) Both presentations and summaries are presented complete. Besides punctuation, paragraphing, etc., the literal transcript was slightly edited only in a few cases where the speaker himself clearly went back over and changed a word or phrase or sentence and where in such case the literally recorded words might prove confusing.

We take great pleasure in presenting both sides of this debate. – The Editors

Presentation by Father Rice

Mr. Chairman, Ladies and Gentlemen:

I am happy to be here tonight and taking part in this program, though I hate to start off by something of a disagreement with our worthy moderator. The Catholic Church is not out to capture the world in the sense in which that phrase is used./p>

We would be out to capture, perhaps, the souls and hearts of all the people in the world if they want to embrace the true religion. But we are not setting out any revolutionary procedure such as the Marxists have entered upon, or such as the fascists have entered upon.

When I hear my church referred to as the most powerful institution, it send shudders down my spine; and I am afraid it sends shudders down the spines of many good sincere Protestants.

The Catholic Church is a church. We conceive ourselves to be the true religion. We invite all who believe in that true religion to become Catholics. The Catholic Church is not an institution engaging in machinations, or anything of the sort.

I am a Catholic priest, but I am not here as a representative of my church. I don’t know whether the bishop knows I am here or not, but I am rather certain that His Holiness in the Vatican hasn’t heard of the debate tonight.

Now with these preliminaries, maybe I can get into the main tenor of the debate. I might tell you first of all that I am surprised to see so many of you here. I did not expect so many people to come to attend the debate between myself and anybody else. I am afraid that I myself wouldn’t go across the street to hear anybody debate, and I congratulate you upon your energy on this more or less balmy evening in November. I’ll try not to disappoint you.

This is a terrible subject for a debate – a very hard subject to get into. But I have nobody to blame but myself because, when Dr. Lawson first called me, he had in mind a debate on some such subject as the Association of Catholic Trade Unionists. I couldn’t see where I would care to make that the subject of a full-dress debate, although there is nothing in particular in our record that we are ashamed of. I didn’t think it needs any particular defending and I, unfortunately, suggested this alternate subject.

Varieties of Socialism

And I have been wrestling intermittently for the past few days with the subject, wondering what in the world to do with it. The reason is, you see, it’s quite difficult to debate somebody when you have difficulty finding him or distinguishing him. First you have to find your opponent. And there are many varieties of Marxian socialists. Well, which one am I debating against?

Am I debating against the particular variety of Marxian socialism that Mr Shachtman represents? Or am I debating against all manner of Marxian socialism? I’m not sure, and maybe when we’re finished you won’t be sure either.

This thing was done very well – I think it must have been thirty years ago. I don’t know how many of you heard of the famous debate between the great Mgr. Ryan, a Catholic priest, pioneer in social action in this country, a man who supported the New Deal, many of whose suggestions foretold the New Deal, a man who was behind the bishops’ program of 1919, which was the document that read almost like the things that Roosevelt began to adopt in 1933 after he was inaugurated. The debate was between him and another great man, a great socialist, called Morris Hillquit.

It was a famous debate; it was carried on by correspondence in the pages of a magazine called Everyman’s Magazine. It ran for a year, conducted very formally; all the aspects of socialism were examined. I didn’t consult that debate before coming here, although there would be much in there that would be worthwhile today. After two world wars and all that has happened between them and after them, whatever was said in that debate or much of it is outmoded today.

There are various branches of socialism – that is, of Marxian socialism – and in one way or another the Catholic Church disagrees with them all. The Catholic Church disagrees only slightly with the economic program of your moderate socialists. It disagrees almost entirely with the entire program of the Communists, who are or assert that they are revolutionary socialists.

And I am sure Catholic doctrine disagrees greatly with the beliefs of the gentleman with whom I am debating tonight, Mr Max Shachtman of New York City, because he too represents a revolutionary Marxism, which bears, as I get it, great similarities to the programme of the Bolsheviks. It is greatly similar to the original programme of Lenin. These gentlemen, I understand, have no more love for Joseph Stalin than I have.

Now for the unsophisticated members of my audience I might say that I wish to start out by decrying the indiscriminate condemnation of certain proposals. Almost any liberal or progressive proposal, when first brought forth, is sure to be tagged by somebody as communistic; or if they get a little milder they say it is socialistic.

I am very much against that for two reasons. For one reason, in the first place, it will discredit many perfectly harmless, honorable and desirable proposals. In the second place it results in giving the communists entirely too much credit, when they are the ones whose name is tagged to the proposed reform. And in the same way it results in giving the Socialists more exclusive credit than they deserve.

It’s strange that we’re having this debate on – I guess it’s the one hundredth anniversary of great things from Marxian socialists and the one hundredth anniversary of the Communist Manifesto. Marxian, I often think, did for general socialist thought what Calvin did for the Protestant Reformation. It whipped the thing into logical form. Now, you may not agree with socialism, as I disagree with it – most of it anyhow – but there is logic there, however mistaken the logic may be.

Basis for disagreement

There are other things concerning socialism that you must remember before you want to discuss it. Socialism has served as a dynamic explosive. It has focused the attention of the world on grave and real evils – real evily in the capitalist system that something needed to be done about. Socialism, from some of its advocates, has constructive achievements to its credit.

However, I disagree with the socialists, Marxian socialists. I disagree with many of the things that they believe in. You see, it isn’t the incidental reforms that occasional socialists advocate that I disagree with. It’s the deep philosophy.

Socialism is not just a mere reform movement. It is a whole philosophy of life for those who accept it. It is a whole philosophy of life for those who accept it. It certainly is that for the Communists, who are a variety of socialists. I imagine it is that for the Trotskyites and for the splinter group to which Mr. Shachtman belongs. It’s a philosophy of life.

There are other socialists of moderate stamp who are just half-hearted socialists. To them socialism may be just a fad; it’s nicer perhaps or more daring to say that you are a socialist than a Republican or a Democrat ... Well, I will not say that there are some people who would say almost anything is nicer than to say one is a Republican after what happened, but we will not engage in that type of talk.

I would sayI disagree with socialism because of its basic philosophical beliefs. I disagree with its materialism. I disagree with the atheism that is half the content of scientific socialism certainly. There may be those who call themselves socialists who are not non-believers, but they are not very good socialists ; they are not very good Marxian socialists.

I disagree thoroughly with some of the basic economic ideas – I can’t see the economic interpretation of history. It has a grain of truth in it, but when it’s carried to its logical extreme – as you sometimes see it done in book reviews, for instance – it verges on the ridiculous. I can’t see zhr socialist idea of the labour theory of value, no matter how it’s modified or watered down; basically to me it’s a false idea.

I disagree very thoroughly with those socialists – and it’s most of them – who, according to their philosophy, deny the right of ownership of private property. I have a basic strong economic disagreement with them on that, because I say that the ownership of private property gives a man security and stability, that it does not inevitably lead to exploitation. I say that man’s right to the ownership of private property is something that should at all times be regulated. I say that the ownership of property may be private but its use is always social.

Private property a natural right

The doctrine of private-property ownership that has been current in the United States, certainly up until very recently, to my way of thinking is an absolute travesty on private property – on the right of private property. I disown and denounce as materialistic and false the idea that if you own something it is yours to do with absolutely as you want regardless of your neighbors. The idea that ownership of a factory, for instance, would give a man the right to conduct his affairs as he wants himself without regard to his workers or without regard to anybody else – I would thoroughly disagree with that right of private ownership.

But I say you cannot take away the right of private ownership, because it’s a natural right. The state cannot take away that right because the State did not give that right. That right is in man because of his very nature as a man. If you trace the source of that right ultimately, you trace it to Almighty God, to the Creator.

It’s very dangerous to say that our rights come from the state; and that is a danger that I am afraid our Marxian socialists get into. The overall danger of statism, I think, is inherent in the Marxian philosophy. Although they say they want to see the day when the state will wither away, and although they say that this is just a stage on the road to socialism when the proletariat will take over, whether it will be a dictatorship of the proletariat or whether they insist that the proletariat will conduct the state, I say that in their doctrine you have inherently the danger that you will deify the state.

You may say that it is merely a temporary deification; but deification of the state by those who possess the machinery of the state leads to corruption by them; leads to power-seeking, as we’ve seen in Soviet Russia; leads to brutal dictatorship. It leads to the faceless leadership of faceless multitudes such as we see in Russia today. That, to an extent, is the basis – not all the basis but some of the basis – of my rejection of Marxism.

Marxism and the Nature of Man

You might put it this way: I reject Marxian socialism, because it does not agree with the true nature of man. Marx himself in some places – I think it was in Das Kapital where he said that when this happy state of affairs comes men will then like to work. I wouldn’t want to be hung for getting the quotation wrong or I’d be strung from the rafters; it’s something of the sort – I know I haven’t got it exactly.

I conceive that the Marxists think that human nature is perfectible. In this scientific Marxism they seem to have an idea that we will evolve into a perfect society of some sort. Very mechanistic and horrible thing to me! But in their regard that human nature is perfectible, they’re wrong. What we’re looking for is not a system that will work with perfect men or perfectible men. What we want is a system that will work somehow with the very miserable, dishonest sinners that we are. That’s what we’re looking for.

Now, one final word before I leave this subject of Marxism. This does not mean that we Catholics oppose Marxists at every turn, that we oppose all Marxists. In the labor unions, for instance, you will find socialists working side by side with us to rid a union of racketeers or of Communists, and working with some harmony just to build a union, just to make a good union that will serve the people. Our Holy Father, the Pope, after this last war, made it very definite that he wanted the Christian parties of Europe to cooperate with all men of good will.

And even in the great encyclical written in 1891 there was a discussion of the moderate form of socialism that came pretty much to the conclusion that if the socialists would drop some of their philosophical points, particularly their atheism, and some of the points that went against the nature of man, there would be no barrier to collaboration between the two even at that date. And there would be no barrier, no barrier whatever, if there was this moderation in socialism, to Catholics becoming socialists and socialists being Catholics. But for the atheistic turn there and those philosophical points which are basically materialistic – those particular ones – if there were a change in some of those, the prohibition that exists would be lifted.

The prohibition as it now stands has to be because of the atheistic content of virtually all Marxian socialism that I’ve ever run into, whether it’s latent or whether it’s on the surface.

I, in this debate, will not attempt to get into a discussion ... (I want you to know my time is running out; and I was the one who told Dr. Lawson that it would be difficult for me to talk for a half hour: it will be difficult for me to shut up at the end of a half hour; I hope somebody rings the bell.)

I will not get into the type of wrangle we could easily get into: the inconsistencies of Marxian socialism. If you follow true scientific Marxian socialism you would wait around for the capitalist system to fall apart. It didn’t fall apart after the First World War. And I conceive, if I were a scientific Marxian socialist, I don’t know how I could have kept on believing in it after I saw the victory of socialism only in the most backward country in Europe; and when I saw that in the great capitalistic nations capitalism did not wither; and the only hope of socialists was to take it over by parliamentary means. Or else perhaps by violence from without – not by uprisings of the workers. I don’t know how I as a socialist could have reconciled that with my point of view.

Communism, for instance: where is it having its inroads chiefly, and its successes, in some European countries devastated by war, to be sure. Where it’s really successful it has been imposed from without; and in China, which can hardly be called an industrial, capitalistic country; and in South America, where industrial capitalism certainly hasn’t gone through its stages and come to any sort of rot, as it seems to me the scientific Marxist expected it to.

Catholic Social Philosophy

Now I have only a few brief minutes to outline the Catholic social philosophy. It was my intention to spend most of my time talking about the Catholic social philosophy, as expressed in the encyclicals of the Popes: De Rerum Novarum, on The Condition of Labour, written or published in 1891; Quadrigesimo Anno, written forty years after; and Atheistic Communism, published in 1938. Some authoritative lights on Catholic doctrine come from other allocutions of the Popes. One of his Christmas allocutions during the war – I believe it was in 1944 – was a beautiful Catholic document calling for social reconstruction. You may find a somewhat authoritative statement of the Catholic position in America in that program of the bishops that was printed in 1919 and that I told you was a forerunner of the New Deal.

The Catholic social position calls for respect for human dignity and human personality. It excoriates the evils of capitalism, monopoly, control of credit, misuse of large industries by their owners, absentee ownership, and all the evils that are apparent in our capitalistic system. Catholic social philosophy calls for strong labor unions and the Pope definitely has instructed his priests to assist labor unions and to assist the worker.

You might say that basically – basically – in the Catholic social philosophy there is a resounding rejection of the capitalistic doctrine of laissez faire, the doctrine that business is business. There is a tremendous effort on the part of Catholic social moralists to bring morals into the marketplace, to make business subject to ethical and to moral considerations. There is a terrific emphasis on the necessity of justice being taken into account in all business transactions, particularly where the worker is concerned.

There is place in the Catholic philosophy for the state to step in and take over industries, and take over sociological matters, where the masters of those industries have failed to do their duty. Where private authority, for instance, will not take care of such matters as housing and medicine, there is a clear position in Catholic social doctrine for the state to step in and take care of those matters.

Against Classical Liberalism

The Catholic Church, in its doctrine, stands opposed to socialism and communism because of the atheistic content and the denial of the nature of man. The church also stands with its face very strong against classical liberalism – classical liberalism being that laissez faire business that the least government is the best government, and that if you let everything alone survival of the fittest will determine who is going to get on top, and that if everybody is selfish let us all be enlightenedly selfish, and so on and so on. One man referred to that as the doctrine of the policeman, as it’s been called – the church is definitely against the policeman theory of the state.

That type of classical liberalism – which we don’t recognize by that name in the United States of America, incidentally; we call liberalism something entirely different; we call liberalism something that is the negation of classical liberalism; we think of that as liberalism. In that sense I wouldn’t mind myself being called a liberal. We use it almost synonymously with progressive – I don’t know what we’re going to do for words now that the Communists have taken that word progressive and made it their own. We’ll just have to get hold of it and give it a good dry-cleaning so that we can still use the word, because with our uncertainty of the use of the word liberalism and the trouble with the word progressivism we are in a bad state.

Let me conclude my remarks by saying that we of the Catholic Church realise the sins that have been committed by many religious people in the name of religion against the workers and against the poor. We recognise all that ocean of hypocrisy that is still not dried out. I recognise that the church works slowly in coming to grips with the horrible evil of industrial capitalism. But I give you as extenuating circumstances – the fact that capitalism is not the child of the Catholic Church. It first grew and flourished in those countries which had repudiated the mother church.

I want to emphasize that there is no desire for any taking control of states or unions or any institutions of power so far as the Catholic Church is concerned. We would like the leaven of true Christianity to grow throughout the entire world. We would like a reform that would start with the hearts of men. We believe that the reform ideas that we have are such that without a revolution (other than that peaceful one in the hearts of men), without a revolution our country and our system can be reformed and cleaned and purified so that it will give justice instead of injustice; that the worker will get his fair share of not only the financial gains of industry but his fair share of responsibility and his fair share of ownership – not the phony ownership without any control which comes from the ownership of stock, but a real sharing in ownership.

And we are very glad to see that modern students of this subject, your great teachers of today, men like Elton Mayo and Clinton Golden, are advocating reforms that fit right in with the Pope’s encyclicals, and that men like Golden speak with respect and knowledge of the papal encyclicals and the reforms that they suggest. We believe that within them there is worked out not a blueprint – not a blueprint, but a philosophical system and a moral system under which men may work out their destinies with justice and with charity. Justice has to come first.

World in a Mess

The world today is in a sorry mess. It is in its mess because of the evil that men have done, and because of the stupidity of men. It will not be righted by any quasi- or reputed-to-be-scientific system. We must reform the world for men and not be thinking of perfecting men so that they will fit into systems and machines. That way we can save ourselves, and that way we can save civilization.

That is the way of Christianity, and that is the way of democracy. The other ways appear to be easier; they are easier on paper. The way of democracy is a hard way; it is a very difficult way. The way to do it is through the people, for the people, and of the people; that’s the hard way. And it’s the way that doesn’t show you any quick or immediate benefits but that’s the only way.

We either do it that way, or we face an unbelievable terror of inhuman regimentation and destruction of the human spirit; and, speaking in purely human terms, we face the destruction of ourselves and of civilization. Being a believer in Almighty God, I believe that that day will not come, that even the stupidity of man cannot destroy himself. But let us not fall for the simple-sounding panaceas. Let us not fall for mere hatred, of class against class. We have to do it in the infinitely harder way of cooperation, love of our fellow man even when he is in the wrong, and a truly Christian religious passion for justice and charity.

Presentation by Max Shachtman

Mr. Chairman, Father Rice and Friends:

I hope there has not been a misunderstanding about the subject of this evening’s debate. I am prepared to debate the theology of the Catholic Church, but not tonight and not under this heading.

I understood that the debate was to be not on the theology of the Catholic Church but on the social philosophy of the Catholic Church. And that I’m prepared to discuss tonight. It’s not possible to have a fruitful disagreement between two people, and to discuss it intelligently, without first finding a point on which the two agree, and which can be used as a point of contact (so-to-speak) and a common point of departure.

In seeking such a point for this debate between Marxism and Catholicism, the closest I’ve been able to come is in the profession by the authoritative spokesmen of the Catholic Church that its social philosophy of today is summed up in the words “social justice” and that the object of social justice is the common good. Marxism in its own way professes such a reformation of human society as will serve the common good by assuring the economic, social and cultural welfare of all the people. If we can assume for the moment that this is more or less our common point of departure, the debate can have a meaningful and fruitful character.

It will then centre around this concrete question: which road should we follow in order to achieve the goal, on this earth at least, which we seem to have in common – the road of the Catholic Church, the Roman Church, or the road of Marxism, that is, the road to socialism?

We start a second time with a point of agreement: Capitalist society, which today dominates the world, is divided primarily into two classes. This old truism of Karl Marx and all his followers is fully recognised by the church itself.

In the De Rerum Novarum of Pope Leo XIII, in 1891, we have it recognised as follows:

“Toward the close of the nineteenth century [reads the encyclical] the new economic methods and the new development in industry had spread among most of the nations to such an extent that human society manifestly became divided more and more into two classes. Of these the first, small in numbers, enjoyed all the comforts plentifully supplied by modern invention. The second class, comprising the immense multitude of the workingmen, was oppressed by dire poverty, and struggled in vain to escape from the straits which encompassed them.” [A]

Furthermore, this division into classes has hardened and become more intolerable, by the monopolistic degeneration of capitalist society, and its fusion with the political machinery of the capitalist state, which is the servant of monopoly.

Pope Recognised Evils

This viewpoint of Marxism, this development forecast by Marxism, was finally acknowledged forty years after the encyclical of Leo XIII by Pope Pius XI in his equally well-known encyclical, Quadrigesimo Anno. There he declares free competition has put an end to itself; economic dictatorship has supplanted free trade; unbridled domination has succeeded the desire for gain. The whole economic life has become hard, cruel and relentless in a ghastly measure.

To this must be added the crying evils that have risen from the intermingling and scandalous confusion of the duties and offices of civil powers and of economics. Such as, to mention but one out of many: the degrading of the majesty of the state. The state which should sit on high, the supreme arbiter ruling in royal fashion free from all party-serving and intent only upon justice and the common good, has become a slave given over and bound to the service of human passion and greed.

To which the Pope added in the same encyclical: the immense number of the proletariat on the one hand and the enormous riches of some very wealthy men on the other are an unanswerable argument that the earthly goods so abundantly produced in our so-called industrial age are far from rightly distributed and equitably shared among the various classes of men.

The intervention of forty years, four decades, required on the part of the Pope an explanation of the state of affairs in capitalist society which closely approximated but was not identical with that which was explained by the Marxists and that which was foretold by the Marxists.

We now can see that capitalism has degenerated to the point where it threatens us all with barbarism and destruction. And when Father Rice said that to follow the Marxists one must wait indefinitely for the collapse of capitalism, that capitalism has not collapsed as the Marxists foretold, then I am absolutely convinced of one thing: that Father Rice lives in the United States but not in the United States as part of the world which is before our eyes. Because if you do not think that capitalism in its birthplace, Europe, has collapsed just about completely, then I wonder to myself what in your view will capitalism look like when it does collapse?

Capitalism in Europe is in a state of complete collapse; it cannot feed the people – I don’t say give them luxuries and comforts. It cannot feed them, it cannot house them. It can destroy people – it did that with magnificent eficiency during the war! It can destroy homes – it does that remarkably well! It destroys homes – it does that with remarkable efficiency!

To be sure, the efficiency of the Second World War was as nothing compared to the efficiency and preparations for us in the Third World War, where you destroy not just one village, and not just one town, but with one single highly efficient atomic bomb we can destroy a whole county – just with one bomb. That’s the efflciency and strength of capitalism today. Otherwise, throughout the world, with the single possible exception of the United States, capitalism is in utter collapse.

Capitalism Degenerating

Now we have in capitalism, in the best of the countries, in the United States, a colossal concentration of wealth on the one side and poverty on the other side. We have in a country of stupendous riches unknown in all history: no abundance, no peace, no security, no full employment anywhere. What we have in the United States, for example, today is a pseudo-full-employment. Stop producing the weapons of destruction in the United States now, stop producing the weapons to wipe out the world in the United States right now, and see how much full employment there is even in this country! We have a vast capacity under capitalism, instead, if not for construction, then for destruction. We have on all hands the growth – inexorable – of regimentation, of militarism, of totalitarianism, and a clear threat in the Third World War even of complete physical extinction of the human race in an atomic-bomb assault upon each other.

Now we Marxists say: this is the direction society will inevitably take so long as capitalism exists. These social evils are not bred in the heart of man; they are bred by capitalism, and by nothing else.

Capitalism is based on capitalist private property – not on private property in general, but on capitalist private property. Capitalist private property constantly expropriates what might be called true private property, or private property in general. That is the way in which capitalism came into existence – by expropriating the private property of the individual and converting it into capitalist private property.

What is that? Capitalist private property – and that is what we mean when we assail private property; that’s all Marxists have ever meant by assailing private property, and nobody can demonstrate otherwise from the writings of Marxism – it means the monopolistic ownership by a minority of the population of the means of production and exchange. And when we say expropriate private property we mean nothing else but that.

Meaning of Private Property

We do not mean that socialism proposes to take your tie from you, that socialism proposes to take your underwear from you (if it has not already been taken by capitalism itself), that socialism proposes to take away the piano in your house or the automobile in your garage (if you have a garage or if you have an automobile), that it proposes to take away any of your belongings, in any sense whatsoever, which are not used for the purpose of exploiting others. A capitalist who has a piano in his house can retain it, even though he never uses it to play on, to his heart’s content under socialism. He does not use the piano for the purpose of exploiting people. He cannot, however, retain ownership of a steel mill or a coal mine, the ownership of which makes it possible for him to exploit people. That’s what we mean by private property, that and nothing else.

The capitalist class is defined in no other way – and maintained in no other way – except by the ownership of the means of production and exchange. This ownership is what gives the capitalist class power of life or death over the working class and over society as a whole. To live, you, the working men, must not only work for the owners of the means of production and exchange – you must guarantee them a profit. Working for them is not enough; a profit is absolutely required for you to get your job; and that profit can be obtained in no other wise except by exploiting that which is your only real possession – namely your physical or mental capacity to work. That is all the workingman has.

Ownership on the one hand, non-ownership of the means of production on the other hand, determine and fix the limits of existence of the two hostile classes which the Pope was compelled to recognise as existing.

Now why are they hostile? Because there is sinfulness in the hearts of men? I have no doubt that there is some. But that’s not what creates the hostility among these two classes. That might create my hostility toward a friend of mine – my sinfulness, my immorality, my lack of the true religion; that might create hostility between you and your cousin; that might create hostility between him and some distant friends; but what explains the hostility between classes is not sinfulness.

To live economically, the capitalist must accumulate; not that he wants to or doesn’t – he must accumulate in order to live. To accumulate, he must be assured profit. To profit, he must exploit labour. There is no other way. No one, no genius, not the greatest, has discovered another way.

Capital always seeks to intensify exploitation; labour always and necessarily seeks to resist exploitation. Capitalism seeks what is rightfully its own, from its point of view: the maximum that it can get out of the worker. Labour seeks what is rightfully its own: that’s why it forms class organisations, labour unions. Now what is rightfully labour’s own, at least from our point of view?

Before we state our point of view, let us inquire into the Pope’s point of view. Leo XIII, in the encyclical I quoted, De Rerum Novarum, says: “The wealth of states” – listen carefully, this is not Marx, this is Leo XIII – “The wealth of states is produced in no other way than by the labour of workingmen.”

Now if the wealth of states is produced in no other way than by the labour of working men, then the wealth of the nation belongs rightfully to the working men. Now how can it get what is its right – a right recognised, it would seem, by the encyclical of l891? By taking over the wealth which it has created, and which it alone has created. That’s all. That is, by the collective ownership of the means of production and exchange.

How? Its right cannot be asserted – the right of labour – by argument, by debate, by pleading, not even by the most passionate appeals to the morality of the capitalist class. That has been tried, without much success. Its right can only be enforced by the independence of its organisation, of its consciousness, of its strength, and of its struggle – no other way for the workingman.

Catholic Principles and Revolution

Now that’s what we mean, and that’s all we really need to mean by revolution. I hope that I have not uttered a profane word here – but that’s all we mean by revolution. A revolution of workingmen who have nothing, against capitalists who have everything in superabundance, is sacred to us. It is not sinful, it is not illegal, it is not immoral.

That’s why we supported the great Russian Revolution of 1917. I’m not speaking of the Stalinist counter-revolution which suppressed it finally, but of the great Russian Revolution of 1917 where the workers took the factories and the peasants took the land. That’s all there was to the revolution.

Now is there anything sinful about that? I cannot for the life of me understand Father Rice’s opposition to the Russian Revolution of 1917, and to what the people did. If I understand Catholic doctrine – it is possible that I don’t and perhaps I’ll be corrected – the Russian Revolution of 1917 took place in strict accordance with Christian moral teaching and Christian principle: one who has not and needs takes from one who has and doesn’t need. Now isn’t that good Catholic doctrine?

Why should the church oppose the Russian Revolution? I hope that Father Rice will not deny that this is recognised as Catholic doctrine.

Now briefly these are the principles of socialist ownership of the means of production, ownership and control of the means of production and exchange by the whole people, by the producers. This is for us the fullest achievement of democracy: the assurance of material abundance for all by wiping out classes, by banishing all social fears which upset and haunt us, so that man, indeed with a new dignity and a new freedom, can devote himself to his free intellectual cultural, and spiritual development on this earth – the earth on which we know we live, and suffer, and struggle, and aspire to liberty.

This does not speak anything at all about the perfectibility of man. Man will perfect himself as much as he can, when he has the freedom to do it, and I contend that under capitalism he does not have the freedom even to approach the problem. It seems to me that it is under the Catholic dogma that we speak about the perfectibility of man – his being so free from sinfulness that he will be received into a heaven where all is, I am sure, for the best. We don’t believe in the perfectibility of man, but we believe in creating those social conditions which allow for his free intellectual, cultural, and (if you wish) moral development.

Cops and Sinners

Now we hold that the Catholic Church cannot achieve the common good. Here let there be not the slightest misunderstanding. Let me underline twenty times that anything I say about the Catholic Church refers to its dogma, its doctrine in the social field, and its actions in the social field, and does not in any sense relate to something that I’m not even discussing because I consider it beyond discussion for a Marxist; namely, the complete, unreserved, unqualified right and freedom of the Catholic, or any other congregation, to worship God in any way he sees fit.

Now I say again, we hold that the church cannot achieve this common good that we will assume is our common aim.

The church first of all preaches the preparation of man for another world, not for this one. It emphasises that. This can only serve, and has only served basically, to help reconcile people to the earthly misery.

That’s why you so often hear among the very devout and pious: we are sinners, to sin is our nature, to sin is in the nature of man. Or as the American bishops said recently in a statement: Man has inborn inclination to evil. Consequently, those who sin against us are doing it only because they in turn have an inborn inclination to evil. How can you effectively resist an evil which is inborn? And if the cop, while you are on strike, very firmly assaults you with his baton, that is undoubtedly due to the fact that he has an inborn inclination to evil. I hope that you in turn have enough of something inborn to teach him that that inborn inclination should not be exercised against your efforts to get a higher wage.

There is not much that can be done – something yes, but not much, until we get our heavenly reward. That’s why Pope Leo says that he is opposed to – I quote: “Excessive concern for the transitory things of life is the source of all vices.”

The transitory things of life – that is, life on this wretched pinhead of a planet. I think that what the trouble with the working class is, is not that it has an excessive concern with its life here, but not a sufficiently clear concern, and that that’s as much a source of evil and vice as any.

And finally the church alone – to continue with the quotation from Leo – “can draw away the fascinated eye of man firmly fixed upon the changing things of earth and direct it to heaven.” I do not mean, I assure you in the sincerest way I can, to be in any sense impious, but if your eyes are fixed on heaven, that is a blessing to the capitalist pickpocket.

Catholicism’s Reactionary Role

The church, further, is for the perpetuation of classes. There is no other result possible from its theory that social problems can best be solved by cooperation between classes. We are opposed to the cooperation between the capitalist class and the working class, we are for such a struggle against the capitalist class that we wipe out all classes, that there are no class divisions in society. Cooperation between these two hostile classes, whose basic interests are irreconcilable, means – implies – necessitates – the perpetuation of class divisions.

We say: Do not cooperate with the capitalist class, because the only basis upon which you can cooperate is to your disadvantage. Fight the capitalist class for the essential necessary rights of labour! On what basis can you cooperate with the capitalist class? By preserving intact the foundation of private property; on that, church doctrine insists.

I contend that private property, in this case private ownership of the means of production and exchange, is the only basis – the only and the sufficient basis – for the strength and power of monopoly capitalism. And so long as this basis remains fundamentally intact, its power and strength and consequently its destructive power remain intact. It is the only basis – this monopolistic power over the means of production and exchange – for competition leading to crises, depression and war. And of course the capitalist class is always ready to cooperate with labour, provided that the foundation of its power remains intact, which is what the Catholic Church dogma demands.

I go further and say: The church plays, willy-nilly, regardless of the opinion or the individual action of any of its servants, of any of its priests, of any of the members of its hierarchy – I am speaking now of the Catholic Church as it is authoritatively represented by its spokesmen – plays a reactionary role in the ranks of labor itself.

First, because it insists upon the primary principle of the preservation of private property. Insofar as it insists upon the preservation of private property in the form of my tie or yours, my piano at home or yours, my shoes or yours, my lathe in the basement or yours, my automobile or yours, there is no possibility even of a dispute between us – that’s not involved. I repeat that my ownership of a piano makes it impossible for me to exploit anybody, if I were the most evil man in the world. But my ownership of a factory not only makes it possible but makes it necessary for me to exploit people, even if I were the most moral person in the world. And that’s the kind of private property (bear in mind) that we are speaking of, and that is what the preservation of private property must necessarily mean.

Secondly, because of its struggle against socialism in the labour movement and in the working class, which we conceive of as the only road out of the bloody chaos and agony into which capitalist society has dragged humanity.

What’s Wrong with the ACTU?

And thirdly, because it divides workers along religious lines – which is utterly fatal to the labour movement. In Europe the Catholic church has for decades had, in one country after another, Catholic trade unions as against the large, big representative free trade-union movement. In the U.S., with that skill for adaptation that has always characterised the Church of Rome, it has organised inside the existing labour movement an Association of Catholic Trade Unionists.

Now, as Father Rice has already pointed out, we of the Workers Party and others co-operate with members of the ACTU, have done so in the past and undoubtedy will do so in the future, on practical questions before the trade unions. That does not change our fundamental attitude toward a movement like the ACTU to the slightest degree.

The ACTU organises labor-unionists along religious lines. If tomorrow the Baptists were to organise an association of Baptist trade-unionists and the Methodists an association of Methodist trade-unionists and the Mohammedans an association of Mohammedan trade-unionists and the Jews an association of Jewish trade-unionists, and every other denomination, plus the various groups of agnostics and atheists, were to organize their groups in the labor movement – what would happen to the unity and coherence, what would happen to the cohesiveness and strength, to the solidarity and the fighting power of the labour movement? It would be divided into a whole multitude of contending religious sections, each attempting necessarily to prevent the others from gaining domination or to have domination itself.

If the ACTU is organised for the purpose of bringing the principles of Catholic social justice to the workingmen, I say: start not with the workingmen, who are not so failing in the ideas of social justice! Start with the big capitalists and bankers! And I ask myself why it is that the church to this day has not founded in the United States, so far as I know, an Association of Catholic Bankers and Businessmen, to teach them a little bit about social justice so they can inflict a little bit of it on the working class. Why do they concentrate upon those in whom the spirit of social justice is far from lacking, instead of trying to organise those in whom the spirit of social justice of any kind is prominent by its absence?

Catholic Church and Totalitarianism

Finally, the church compromises with or supports outright reactionary regimes which destroy democracy. And democracy is essential not only for us of the socialist movement – it is an absolute lifeblood for the working-class movement. Show me a labour movement of any kind that can exist without democracy – show me a labour movement that exists in those countries where a regime of totalitarianism or authoritarianism has been installed!

Show me a free labour movement under Mussolini in Italy, with whom the papacy completed a concordat and the Lateran Treaty. Show me a free labour movement in Germany, after Hitler took power and the Pope completed a concordat with Von Papen and Hitler. Show me a free labour movement in the Austria of Dolfuss, that model Catholic statesman, who massacred the socialist workers in Vienna in 1934. Or show me a free labour movement in countries like Portugal, a model Catholic state more or less; or in Spain, a model Catholic state more or less!

In all the countries of Europe and America where the Catholic Church has dominance or predominant social and political influence, there the conditions of the workingman and the peasant are of the lowest. Isn’t that a fact?

Finally – again, I must rush through to the end – the church is itself anti-democratic, and seeks a monopolistic position of political power in every country. In the church, there is no such thing as an election. The only thing that approaches an election, that could in the remotest sense of the term be called democratic, is the election of the Pope himself by the College of Cardinals. Otherwise, the cardinals are appointed; every bishop is appointed by the Pope; the priests in the parishes are selected by the bishops. Everything is hierarchical downward; nothing is, so to speak, hierarchical upward. The communicants of the Catholic Church do not rule in the church, and they do not decide in the church.

The church doctrine denies what it calls the “natural right” of existence of other religious beliefs and groups. It alone, it contends, has a “natural right” to exist and to propagate its faith. It seeks to be the state church and the only state church, with suppression or restriction of all other religious institutions and of all democratic political institutions except those which agree socially or philosophically with its aims.

“Moral Law”

It declares, to be sure, in its doctrine that the state and church are two different powers, and that each has fixed limits for the exercise of these powers. But it adds to that: the basis of the state is moral law. Now what is moral law? The church, the Roman Apostolic Church, is the only true and reliable interpreter and judge of what moral law is, and if there is a conflict in jurisdiction between the power of the state and the power of the church, Catholic doctrine reserves the decision for itself and for its institution, the church. It proclaims that the jurisdiction of the church must prevail, and that of the state be excluded.

Hence the Catholic Church, far from contributing to the common good, is a replica in ecclesiastical garb of the reactionary, authoritarian, totalitarian and other anti-democratic states which everybody knows it has so often helped to form, and with which it has always been prepared to collaborate. In this, it is faithful, not, to be sure, to the preachings of him they call the Savior, but to its own long history of obscurantism, bigotry and reaction.

Seldom in history was it the vehicle of social welfare, of historic advancement. Almost always and ever it was a prop, often the decisive one, of the slaveholders against the slaves in history, of the feudal lords against the serfs, of the status quo against social progress, of darkness against light.

Yet slavery died; serfdom died. Left today is capitalist wage slavery, and this too shall pass, despite the always stubborn, always skillful, but in the end futile resistance that the church offers to socialist freedom.

Without going back too far into ancient history, we know the answer for ourselves to this illuminating question: when and where did the Church of Rome initiate or foster a great movement of the people for economic, political, social or cultural reform? When and where did the church initiate or foster a great struggle for democracy or democratic rights? When and where did the Church of Rome proclaim and conduct without equivocation or let-up a holy war against fascism, as it has so often conducted against socialism ?

Ask these questions of the church, and the answer must in the last instance be: nowhere and never. Ask these questions of the Marxists, the socialists, and the answer is: everywhere and always. There is a difference between the social philosophy of the Catholic Church and Marxism, a living movement of the workers everywhere for socialist freedom, peace, abundance and universal progress.

Summary by Max Shachtman

I wish to thank Dr. Lawson and the forum here for their kindness in inviting me to present the point of view of socialism and Marxism as supported by our party, the Workers Party. In recapitulating our position, let me state it briefly again as follows:

Socialism demands the collective ownership and democratic control and management of the means of production and exchange for the benefit and welfare of the people as a whole. That is an adequate statement of the socialist objective; nothing less than that suffices.

We base that upon the fact that capitalism, which is founded upon and cannot exist without the monopolistic ownership and control of the means of production and exchange, has brought society almost literally to the edge of a precipice, where it cannot guarantee security to the people, cannot guarantee peace to the people, cannot guarantee brotherhood to the people, cannot guarantee abundance to the people. Any social system which cannot guarantee those to the masses of the people stands condemned. The only way to replace capitalism, the only socialism.

If we cannot point to Russia as a democratic socialist state, a democratic socialist society, that’s not because we do not have the power there – that’s because the workers do not have the power there. Trotsky and Stalin were not fighting a fight for personal power; and it would take a journalist of the Hearst school to sum up so historically important a social conflict in those terms. What was being fought was a struggle between a reactionary bureaucracy on the one side and a working class in a backward country on the other side. The Marxists, including Lenin, inluding Trotsky, from 1917 onward repeated that the Russian working class by itself can take power, but the Russian working class by itself cannot establish a socialist society. That’s a task for the workers of more than one country, a number of countries, and above all the workers of the most advanced countries of Europe.

That is the reason we do not have socialism in Russia today. Socialism demands not only the collective ownership of the means of production and exchange but the control of the working class. I say again: anything less than that may be anything you want; it is not and never will be socialism.

Now what about the other views of socialism?

Among other things – I don’t say exclusively on this – we base that on the clear, unmistakable, unambiguous declaration of Pope Leo XIII: The wealth of the nation is produced only by the labour of working men. Now you can twist that all you want. You can twist that out of shape. But if you let it spring back into its original shape, that’s all it can be made to say. That’s why to all of labour belongs all the wealth of the country, primarily and above all the means of production and exchange which are used to enslave the millions.

Do not be tickled under the chin by the idea that socialism has an absolutely fierce and murderous objective – against whom? a corner grocery? or a peanut stand? Are the corner grocers and the peanut stands ruining civilization? Are those the ones that socialists are set against, or is it the United States Steel Corporation, American Telephone and Telegraph, General Motors, du Pont, and those others which have come to be known in the United States not as the boys in the corner grocery store, but as the Sixty Families which control the economic and political life of this country? That’s what we’re concerned with primarily.

A Challenge

The Catholic Church as an institution has been in all decisive events on the side of reaction. I’m not at all speaking of it from the standpoint of its communicants; I’m not at all speaking of it from the standpoint of its individual priests. I’m not even speaking of it from the standpoint of its individual prelates and princes. But I’m speaking of the Catholic Church as an institution.

It has been in all decisive events on the side of reaction. How is it – talk all you want – that the Catholic Church has been overwhelmingly on the side – (not this or that priest, I say again, but the church, and everybody knows it, and there’s no use trying to blink at it; prominent Catholics have admitted it; and if I had the time I would quote them in sufficient number) – on the side of Hitlerism, on the side of Pilsudski [in Poland], on the side of Dolfuss in Austria, on the side of Mussolini in Italy, on the side of Franco in Spain, on the side of Peron in the Argentine, on the side of Salazar in Portugal, on the side of all the totalitarian and fascist regimes. Isn’t that a fact? Doesn’t every child know it?

The Pope in the Quadrigesimo Anno, the encyclical of 1931, says: No sincere Catholic may be a true socialist. Clear enough, isn’t it? Show me one declaration that’s just as clear on the part of the Pope or the arbiters of the Holy Congregation – excuse me, I’ve got the name wrong: the Congregation of the Holy Office who interpret and hand down Catholic law in Rome – one clear statement which says in just the same words except for one: no sincere Catholic may be a fascist or Nazi! Show me one!

There isn’t one because the Catholic Church, even when it has not shared the view of reaction – and in many cases it has not – has always managed to work with reaction, has always managed to cooperate with reaction. Therein lies the fundamental basis for its opposition to socialism and on no other grounds.

Summary by Father Rice

I’d like to draw your attention to the fact that I attempted here tonight a serious discussion of socialist panaceas. I disagreed with them, but I discussed them seriously. If you will remember in my first discussion, there was no abuse of socialism.

What you heard when I had concluded was a harangue something like the old Wobbly [B] out in the Middle West, something like the village atheist – throwing out at least a hundred various smears and catchwords that I couldn’t possibly all answer in one evening, if we all stayed here until I don’t know when – we could stay here many, many evenings.

Typical of them was the assertion that the church supported Hitler. That is not true; it is a complete untruth. The signing of the concordat with Hitler was an attempt to protect the Catholics, millions of whom lived in the Third Reich. It was an unsuccessful attempt, and the Pope came out against Hitler, and clearly showed the side on which he stood, coming out against the dogmas of Hitler.

Pope Leo said no sincere Catholic can be a socialist; he did not say no sincere Catholic can be a fascist. No wonder – he was dead about thirty or forty years when the fascists started.

That there have been Catholics, and in some countries the majority of Catholics, who cooperated with reaction, and who instead of defending the workers defended their oppressors, is true. It is not a matter of dispute. But the Catholic Church, age-old, contained within herself the seeds of the right attitude, because the truth is there, and the truth is on the other side, and the truth impelled the Pope to speak out as he did. And the Catholics are following the Pope today more and more. The fact that everybody, when the Pope spoke in 1891, didn’t immediately turn around and start to parrot his words shows you very definitely and very clearly that there is not in the Catholic Church the discipline, the automatonism that the Ku Klux Klan and the Workers Party would want you to believe in.

Any defense of the Catholic Church I give you can be summed up in a nutshell. The Catholic Church came into a pagan world, where justice was unknown, where slavery was the rule. Slavery ended; injustice was fought against. No Catholic ever claimed that the acts of all his fellow Catholics and even of the leaders are acts in perfect accord with the Divine Master. We leave claims to blameless lives and untarnished conduct, to those who say that they don’t believe in God or justice. We do not claim that perfect record, of perfect human conduct, for ourselves, except for our saints, who have been regrettably few. The Catholic Church is a church of sinners. It’s human and it’s divine: because it’s divine, there is mystery; because it is human, there is scandal.

“Only by the Workers”?

As for some more of the matters at issue, our Holy Father the Pope – I couldn’t find it in the quotation there exactly where he said that the wealth of the nations is produced only by the workers. I couldn’t find the exact context, but I do know that the whole paragraph runs to the effect that each class ... I don’t say that Mr. Shachtman made that quotation up; I merely say I couldn’t dig it up in these few minutes here. I know the encyclical but I don’t know it letter perfect.

The context of that is [1] – Oh, yes: “Human labor of every kind is the general source of the increase in wealth in this world. Pope Pius IX quotes Leo to the effect that the wealth of states is produced in no other way than by the labour of workingmen.” That is the quotation. That is exact.

The context in which it is, is a discussion of the functions of the two classes. Our Holy Father the Pope points out that both the managing or the employing class and the working class perform a function. Management performs a function. There will be a management class in your socialist utopia or your United States Steel plant won’t run. There will be a supply of capital in some way. Perhaps you can get out of it by the state. But Leo points out that there is a function.

In no place does he say that the workers are entitled to all the profits, that they give the only thing of value; because management is not a thing of wealth, but it is a thing of definite value. If you put six guys digging a sewer, you’ll get more out of them if you put one of the six to manage them. There isn’t any doubt about that. Those are your principles of efficiency. Try it some time.

The stand of the church on the classes is that both classes are necessary, both classes perform a function. There are great evils and great corruptions in the capitalist system. There are great corruptions connected with the ownership of private property; but definitely private property is such a bulwark of the liberties of man that you cannot permit it to be taken away from people and put in the state, because the thing you don’t like about capitalism is that not enough men have shares in productive ownership.

If more men had a share, a true share, in the responsibility and earnings and wealth of productive ownership, we’d have more freedom, and more strength, but if you take it away so that no man owns this share ... We can talk about how all the workers will have it; it’ll belong to all the workers; somebody has to run it; somebody has to manage it, and you’re responsible to that individual.

Now the only place where they got a chance to really put that in force and to really build from nothing is in Russia. True, this little group – it’s a very small group, I assure you – disowns the Russian experiment. And other socialists also disown it, except when they’re in a country which the Russians are running, and then generally a majority agree with them that Russia is all right. The socialists do this. It’s happened in the Balkans. Wherever the countries are that the Russians come in, a strong group of socialists will always go and amalgamate with the Communists, and be eaten up, and enable them to eat the country up, just like they ate up Czechoslovakia. It’s happened in every single case, where these men will amalgamate with these tyrants of the Kremlin.

Tyranny of Left and Right

Tyranny of the left is just as evil as tyranny of the right, and we’ve got to be against both. If we give our destinies into the hands of the state, as this little group proposes, absolutely – now socialists like Dr. Van Essen don’t propose that particular thing, they want a gradual business about it – but if, as this little group proposes, we turn our entire destinies and put them in the hands of the state, you can call it anything you want, you can call it anything you want, it will be dictatorship. And maybe some little group in Siberia will say: No, that isn’t true socialism; it was bureaucracy, or something else that horsed up the United States experiment, but that won’t do us a bit of good. We’ll be in it. That is the thing that stands out.

And as for the Catholic Church against socialism: the Catholic Church is against all statism and all totalitarianism. There’s a place for the state and a place for the church. There are moral laws and there is justice that always, always, must be observed. And if you get away from your moral concepts, and if you think that any vast nation can live by a system akin to that of village atheism, you’re crazy. Wherever it’s been tried, you’ve had the madhouse of Hitler, an ex-socialist, Mussolini, an ex-socialist, and Stalin, who is now – at least he claims today that he still is – a socialist.


1. It should be explained that at this point Comrade Shachtman handed Father Rice a copy of the Catholic pamphlet from which the encyclical had been quoted. The immediately ensuing quotation read by Father Rice is from this pamphlet: Christian Social Reconstruction, by Dom Virgil Michel, dean of College of Arts and Sciences. St. John’s University; published 1937, imprimatur of Archbishop Stritch of Milwaukee, by Bruce Publishing Company.


Notes by Workers Liberty

A. This quote is actually from the encyclical Quadragesimo Anno (1931).

B. Industrial Workers of the World – a militant syndicalist American trade union.


Comment by MIA

The text originally copied from the Workers Liberty Website was an edited version of the debate originally published in The New International. In the current version all cuts made by Workers Liberty have been restored. We do not suggest that there were any distortions of the content of the debate in the edited version, which can be consulted at the link given above.

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Last updated on 21 August 2018