Catholic irony

The Catholic Truth Society is issuing, among other confusionist and superstitious works, a pamphlet entitled “The Church and Socialism.” It consists of a paper read by Mr. Hillaire Belloc, M.P., at the Catholic Conference held at Manchester in 1909. The society, in continuing its publication evidently consider it valuable as a means to combat Socialism. They, presumably, endorse the extravagant claims of Mr. Belloc with regard to the efficacy of the Catholic religion to withstand the otherwise victorious progress of Socialist propaganda . What does Mr. Belloc claim ? On page 1 he says :

“The Movement of Socialism as it advances, discovers no other serious opponent besides the Catholic Church ; and in a general survey of Europe I cannot but believe that the struggle between these two forces is the matter of our immediate future.”

The Catholic Church is not merely one of the props of capitalist society ; it is something more. Every other party and creed is visibly crumbling before the march of Socialism. Roman Catholicism is the only sure barrier which stands between a ruling class incapable of its own defence and a subject class rapidly awakening to a consciousness of its wrongs and its power. Self-advertisement of this kind has become quite familiar. The rivalry between anti-Socialist organisations and their claims for notice are tributes to the increasing popularity of Socialism and evidence of capitalist recognition of its potentialities. The immortal Catholic Church, with its ancient and venerable traditions, its apostolic succession and its divine papacy, enters the service of a degenerate ruling class in competition with the Anti-Socialist Union, the Liberal and Tory Parties, and the Labour Party, all of which in their respective fashions, combat Socialism with lies, misrepresentation, and confusion.

Those who know the real history of the Catholic Church, its sordid struggle for wealth and power during the Middle Ages, and its ruthless suppression of knowledge and rational thought, will expect from its sycophants little beyond their customary stolid faith in painted images and a sluggish and unreasoning antipathy to everything that is new. This hidebound inertia of the Catholic Church is a characteristic receiving general recognition. Mr. Belloc seems fully alive to it, for he devotes a considerable space in his paper to an attempted refutation of it—so much so that the reader wonders when his eulogy will cease and some evidence of Catholic efficiency be forthcoming.

Among other things Catholic opposition is “novel and challenging” to the Socialist, who is made to think after the “unworthy opponents” he is accustomed to.

“The arguments that Socialists are accustomed to meet in their own non-Catholic surroundings are either puerile or vicious ; the demolition of such arguments is too facile a task to occupy an intelligent mind, and the Socialist by the very exercise of such a controversy against ineptitude grows to think there is no permanent obstacle to the propagation of his system—it is merely a question of time.”

“The vulgar capitalist arguments” is a reference that gives promise of some intellectual opposition to come, but when Mr. Belloc says on page 4 that—

“Socialists are at once the most sincere and the most actively curious of men. They seek out everywhere men of all kinds to convince them of justice : it is their occupation and their very breath ; and in this process they will learn what all travelled and experienced men appreciate, that the spirit of the Church is not the spirit of intellectual supineness. The Catholic irony, the Catholic rhetoric, the Catholic rapidity of synthesis, the Catholic prediliction for general ideas and for strict deduction therefrom, the Catholic passion for definition and precise thought”

and much more of the same kind, he exhibits a display advertisement as gross and vulgar as any quack poster.

No capitalist party, organisation, or champion up to the present has been able to meet Socialism with argument. The Catholic Church may prostitute its “irony, rhetoric, and rapidity of synthesis” to the service of capitalism, but these qualities have been enlisted in that cause before, and have met with derision from those : sufficiently intelligent to observe the absence of argument. If Socialism cannot be defeated by argument, its success is only a question of time, because there is an increasing tendency on the part of the workers to examine carefully and critically the pretensions of every political party. Impelled by the worsening of his conditions, the worker’s scrutiny becomes ever more close. Irony and rhetoric will not sway him; he will need ideas based on the essential facts of working-class conditions. His philosophy will be built up on facts, because the preservation of a system by an artificial philosophy will mean the preservation of conditions inimical to his interests.

The “Catholic passion for definition and precise thought” has yet to be proved. Mr. Belloc, in his paper, certainly repeats definitions, but they are of the dogmatic kind, and because they are false, only reveal the absence of precise thought. For instance, he asserts that—

“The test thesis of Socialism is this—that man would be better and happier were the means of production in human society controlled by Government rather than by private persons or corporations.”

Having thus failed to define Socialism correctly, he further adds to the confusion by referring to the “Socialisation of the means of production, which he (the Socialist) regards as morally exterior to the category of ownable things.” As State control could only rest on class ownership, Mr. Belloc’s “test thesis” is in contradiction to his later description of the Socialist’s moral attitude. Again, Mr. Belloc realises that Socialism will end exploitation. With him “the influence of the State in economic affairs”— nationalisation of industries, etc.—is not Socialism. The Socialist who argues that way indulges I in a “hoary fallacy.” Further, he says:

“The principle of Socialism is that the means of production are morally the property not of individuals but of the State ; that in the hands of individuals, however widely diffused, such property exploits the labour of others, and that such exploitation is wrong.”

These statements, appearing side by side in the same composition, are the opposite of explicit or definite ; they are conflicting and confusing. Mr. Belloc conceives a real Socialism based upon indisputable principles as through a mist of idealism, and then endeavours to reconcile his conception with a current definition coined in ignorance and clung to because neither he nor any capitalist defender dare face the truth, established by science and confirmed by history and common sense :—That the logical alternative to capitalism, with its private or class ownership of the means of wealth production, is common ownership with democratic control.

The boasted superiority of the Catholic opposition to Socialism is a bubble that is easily pricked. We have seen how Mr. Belloc shirks the real issue, just as other anti-Socialists do. Like them, too, he is compelled to admit the utter failure of capitalism. He says (p. 5) :

“Here is modern industrial society, evil beyond expression, cruel, unjust, cowardly and horribly insecure.”

The hideousness of it drives him at once into Utopia—

“a community composed of, we will say, two farming families, each family to be the owner of its farm and each to employ the members of the other in certain forms of labour which those members are especially skilled in. To the Catholic such a condition of society presents itself as absolutely just.”

In other words, the Catholic solution is—divide the means of wealth-production among the people according to some principle of equity yet to be discovered, and preserve the relationship between employer and employed because some such force is necessary to satisfy the instinct of ownership inherent in man.

This property instinct is the central idea of Mr. Belloc’s paper ; like the rest, it is not new. For if he proves that man, either by creation or evolution, is possessed of a fundamental instinct to possess the means of life for himself, then the whole of the working class, being propertyless, are committed to uncompromising hostility to the property-owning class, by virtue of Mr. Belloc’s reasoning. Again, if ownership of the actual means of production is essential and elementary, why are shareholders content to hold paper scrip which only represents a portion in the abstract ? No shareholder would think of entering a factory of which he was part owner, and claiming a portion as his individual property ; he is quite satisfied, as a rule, to participate in the annual dividends.

Of course, Mr. Belloc is quite unable to establish the truth of his central idea. He asserts it thus :

“this institution of ownership is not merely a civil accident unconnected with the destiny of the soul, nor a thing deliberately set up by man, as are so many of the institutions of a State, but a prior thing based, created with man himself, inseparable from him, and close in touch with the sense of right and wrong, etc.”

Mr. Belloc, in this instance, has visions of the “Garden of Eden,” with Adam in full possession, his instinct for ownership as strong as the curiosity that proved fatal to his continued sojourn in that Elysium, and both inspired by a Creator whose ultimate intention was capitalist society, “evil beyond expression, cruel, unjust, cowardly and horribly insecure.” Mr. Belloc only succeeds in throwing the blame on a “God,” whose creatures, silenced by death, have left no word that could be used in his defence, in such circumstances.

The “Catholic passion for precise thought, for general ideas and strict deduction therefrom,” goes by the board with Mr. Belloc’s reliance on dogma. By attributing the property instinct to creation he comes into violent conflict with science. Hence his passion is only for the words associated with science—not the substance, but merely the envelope. Science denies the existence of a creator—Mr. Belloc’s only authority, and that a looking-glass held to his own mind. He cannot plead ignorance, for Science is most emphatic in its assertion that the property idea has developed along with other ideas and institutions as a result of material conditions.

Lewis H. Morgan, LL.D., says :

“The idea of property has undergone a similar growth and development. Commencing at zero in savagery, the passion for the possession of property, as the representative of accumulated subsistence, has now become dominant over the human mind in civilised races.”

This passage occurs in his preface to his own work, “Ancient Society,” on page 5 of which he says :

“The idea of property was slowly formed in the human mind, remaining nascent and feeble through immense periods of time. Springing into life in savagery, it required all the experience of this period and all the subsequent period of barbarism to develop the germ and to prepare the human brain for the acceptance of its controlling influence. Its dominance as a passion over all other passions marks the commencement of civilisation. It not only led mankind to overcome the obstacles which delayed civilisation, but to establish political society on the basis of territory and of property. A critical knowledge of the evolution of the idea of propertv would embody, in some respects, the most remarkable portion of the mental history of mankind.”

Thus Mr. Belloc’s main thesis was shattered before it was harboured in his brain. He may reiterate this broken thesis clothed in the Catholic irony and rhetoric, but even their acrid pungency can have no disintegrating effect on scientific truth. His chief argument was still-born—met and destroyed before it was uttered ; an abortion of the Catholic mind. It took shape only to dissolve at its first contact with the hard, material world, and Mr. Belloc is left with nothing but his “Catholic irony and rhetoric,” his only weapons in the field of controversy—unless the “Catholic Church,” not to be behind its competitors, has already cultivated the art of lying and confusion in the interest of its capitalist masters.

F. F.

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