It Is Marxism!

In addition to Peter Steinfels' essay urging us to be careful not to weaponize Pope Francis' message, which Kaitlin Campbell helpfully points us to, Politico also has a piece by Paul Vallely that paints a bit more confrontational picture of Francis' relationship to the American status quo. After recounting some of the more challenging things that Francis has said about the problems with the prevailing predatory capitalism and "throwaway culture" of a "globalization of exclusion and indifference," Vallely sums up the spin put on these prophetic statements by Francis' so-called "supporters":

Francis’ supporters argue that he is not advocating a specific political program; rather than taking political sides, he is trying to open people’s minds to the generosity, openness and inclusiveness of the gospel. “It’s not Marxism,” one cardinal told me. “It’s classic Catholic social teaching, as developed by previous popes.” What, after all, is Francis’ joyful embrace of the poor and the rejected—kissing a man with a terrible skin disease, visiting thousands of African migrants washed up on Europe’s shores in Lampedusa, Italy—but an echo of Jesus of Nazareth?

As touching as the gestures that Vallely mentions are, it is difficult to see how things could get more specific or closer to Marxism than what Francis had to say in July when he spoke at The Second World Meeting of Popular Movements in Boliva. There he did not just talk about extending a hand to particular individuals in need. However important this sort of "charity à la carte," as he called it in Evangelii Gaudium, may be (and no one, I think, would doubt that it is), Francis is urging us to adopt a more comprehensive program of systemic change.

Thus, referring to specific instances of exclusion and injustice, he said in Bolivia:

I wonder whether we can see that those destructive realities are part of a system which has become global. Do we realize that that system has imposed the mentality of profit at any price, with no concern for social exclusion or the destruction of nature? If such is the case, I would insist, let us not be afraid to say it: we want change, real change, structural change.

We want structural change. This sounds like more than simply asking people to spare a thought and perhaps a loaf of bread for the hungry child on the street. This is not just a call to an increase in personal virtue and social sensitivity. This is a political statement. Of course, it is "not Marxist" in the sense of not being materialistically reductive and therefore necessarily atheistic, though it is not clear that Marx himself ever accepted this version of "Marxism"--an ideology, by the way, to which he never claimed to subscribe. But it is most certainly Marxist in any way that would be relevant to the Catholic billionaire Ken Langone, whom Vallely quotes as saying that Francis should be careful not to alienate wealthy donors like himself lest he find the poor boxes empty (an interesting bit of atheistic and materialistic blackmail in itself).

In Bolivia, Francis called for "the just distribution of the fruits of the earth and human labor" saying that this is "about giving to the poor and to peoples what is theirs by right." Linking the fruits of labor to rights in this way suggests the "labor theory of value" that one finds in Thomas Aquinas and in the social encyclicals beginning with Rerum Novarum, but it is also the theory of value that one finds in Marx. It is the theory that says that those who work to produce goods and services, through agriculture or manufacture, ought to have a share in the ownership of those goods. It is a rejection of the wage slavery whereby workers are shackled by policies that seek to interrupt the worker's relationship with the fruits of his or her labor by turning this labor into a commodity itself. The price of this commodity, then, must be weighed against the expected profits to be gained through the sale of commodities owed by stockholders. On this account, it should be made clear, the stockholder owns both the workers (now often more honestly referred to as "human resources") and the commodities that these workers produce, and the stockholder profits to the extent that he or she (and the market) values the former less than the latter. Thus, when Francis talks about a "formal market" in which people are "exploited like slaves," what else could he be talking about but the alienation of workers from the means of production? And when he calls for governments to promote "the strengthening, improvement, coordination and expansion of forms of popular economy and communitarian production," what could he be referring to other than supporting the formation of unions (another thing endorsed by the social encyclicals) and empowering local commerce by limiting the monopolistic practices of transnational corporations? All of which, I assume, Mr. Langone would rightly identify as "Marxism."

Now, some might object that what Francis is calling for cannot possibly be Marxism, because he is adamant about affirming "a full a participatory democracy." Most Marxists, however, hold that Marx himself would have been repulsed by the forms of repressive society that have come to be associated with communist regimes, and in fact, Marx thought, as Terry Eagleton has argued, that communism was nothing if not democratic. Indeed, the whole point of wealth redistribution and labor organizing is to put political power in the hands of the multitude and to undercut the plutocratic tendencies of a capitalist system that consolidates political power in the hands of the few, allowing governance to pass from one pampered hand to the next (e.g., from Bush to Clinton to Bush to Clinton or Bush). And one only need to remember that Marx was himself a journalist and a victim of state censorship to assume that he would have been in favor of free speech and voting rights for all.

When Francis affirms the desires of peoples to have "their culture, their language, their social processes and their religious traditions" respected, he is speaking out against the hegemonic culture of global capitalism, which exports the homogenizing culture of "freedom fries" around the world so that the greatest expression of the human spirit can be found in a McDonald's Happy Meal. As the Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci understood, culture is the basis of solidarity. It is for this reason that Francis sees the "monopolizing of  the communications media, which would impose alienating examples of consumerism and a certain cultural uniformity" as "one of the forms taken by the new colonialism." When Francis talks about "the encounter between peoples and cultures," then, he is not talking about free trade agreements that would make it possible for persons to come together in the global living room that is their neighborhood Starbucks. He is talking about empowering local peoples economically and politically so that they might preserve their own cultures, maintained by the fruits of their own labor, and funded by profits that are already theirs by right. Sounds like a specific political program to me.

Far from being a non-partisan, anodyne affirmer and afflicter of all people of good will, as I have heard repeated by many over the last several days, Francis has a definite political program. He concluded his remarks in Boliva stating simply, "The future of humanity does not lie solely in the hands of great leaders, the great powers and elites. It is fundamentally in the hands of peoples and in their ability to organize." This bears repeating: The future of humanity is fundamentally in the hands of peoples' ability to organize. I don't see how we could read this and not hear those urgent words of the one whom Francis' so-called supporters say shall not be named: "Workers of all countries, unite!" Of course, this is not all Pope Francis has to say, and in that sense, it is not just Marxism. But I think one might safely say that it is at least Marxism. 

Eric Bugyis teaches Religious Studies at the University of Washington Tacoma.

Also by this author
More on Big Love

Please email comments to [email protected] and join the conversation on our Facebook page.

Must Reads

Culture
Collections