1920s >> 1925 >> no-254-october-1925

Review: Private Property and its Catholic Defenders

The Socialist Party has never sought to hide its hostility to all forms of religion. It frankly opposes all organisations, from the Church of Rome downwards, which seek to maintain the mental thraldom of the working class. In a special pamphlet and frequently in these columns attention has been drawn to the fact that religion in its present form is a part of the capitalist society, standing or falling therewith.

Additional evidence in this direction is afforded by a twopenny pamphlet recently issued by the Catholic Truth Society, entitled “The Catholic Church and the Principle of Private Property.” by Hilaire Belloc. Herein the author attempts to defend private property; not indeed, in its present-day capitalistic form, but in its pre-capitalistic, medieval or catholic form. Apparently Mr. Belloc regards capitalism as being almost, if not quite, as immoral as Socialism; not least because Socialism is the logical outcome of capitalism! To him the economic relations existing during the Middle Ages were the only normal, and therefore moral, relations possible, and his remedy for the present-day social conflict is a return to these relations (p. 28). He would reverse the process of capitalist accumulation by “just fiscal laws” (p. 13).
The Socialist can afford to smile at such childish proposals, for the simple reason that they have not the remotest chance of being adopted by any political party in real earnest. The fate of Anti-Trust laws in America, for example, is a painful object-lesson for all would-be reformers on those lines. Further, if Socialism arises out of capitalism, as Mr. Belloc correctly points out, it is equally true that capitalism was the inevitable outcome of Feudal society.
The principle of private property (which Mr. Belloc holds is a fundamental human institution) is no “eternal truth.” It has varied from age to age in accordance with the variation in the means and methods of production. The development of these means and methods forms the basis of social development. It was not, as Mr. Belloc holds, the revolt against Rome which gave rise to industrialism. On the contrary, it was precisely the other way about. The expansion of trade and the rise of manufacture was the cause, not the effect, of the Reformation. The burgesses of the rising towns opposed the Church, not primarily because they disagreed with her doctrines, but because they saw in her landed possessions and political power a bulwark of the system which oppressed them.
At one time the Church held a third of the land of Christian Europe. Her wealthy prelates were feudal lords, able to raise small armies of tenants and retainers, and were admitted to the seats of the mighty as part of the second estate of the realm. No wonder, then, that the zealous Catholic of to-day looks back with longing on the vanished past and views with jealous hatred the class which has usurped wealth and power; but the Church has learned to temper her celestial pretensions with worldly wisdom, and has accommodated herself to the requirements of her new masters. Whatever she may proclaim as theory, her actions are circumspect and law-abiding, and her heaviest denunciations fall on the rebel workers.
Similarly, Mr. Belloc, a “critic” of capitalism, was for years an active member of the capitalist Liberal Party and supported with “commendable” literary courage the Allied capitalist Governments during the recent war. The fact that his fellow-Christians were slaughtering one another for the sake of trade routes and markets, oil-wells and cotton lands, did not seem to worry him. This, however, by the way.
The medieval system of society collapsed largely because it was founded on the isolation of the producers. The peasants in the country and the craft guilds in the towns were unable to withstand the nation-wide activities of the merchant class. Assuming that by some miracle the workers could again enter into individual possession of the means of production, it would require another miracle to prevent history repeating itself.
Collective production as organised by capitalism is more economical than individual production. Machinery which is used against the workers by the capitalist class so long as they possess it will be used for the workers when, the latter assume possession; but how are the workers to become individually the possessors of machinery? Mr. Belloc does not tell us ! “The workers operate the machines in common; let them be possessed in common.” That is the proposal of the Socialist. A system of society based upon the common ownership of the means of life —that is Socialism; but Mr. Belloc assures us that “there is nothing new nor anything requiring a moment’s study in the proposal” (p. 22).
He is not averse, however, to betraying his ignorance. Thus he confuses Marxism with Proudhonism, and describes Marx as a mere populariser of Proudhon’s ideas. Apparently he has never read or even heard of “The Poverty of Philosophy,” in which Marx tore to pieces Proudhon’s “Philosophy of Poverty.” According to Mr. Belloc, Proudhon was brilliant, while Marx was dull. The latter merely “sat down to write a book,” which the former (although “a literary genius”) presumably could not do. It is interesting to note, however, that while the compilers of the “Encyclopaedia Britannica” consider Marx’s theories important enough to devote two or three columns to, they confess their inability to reduce Proudhon’s ideas to any system.
The simple fact is that there was a fundamental divergence between the views of the two men. Proudhon took his stand, as Mr. Belloc points out, on the view that private property was immoral under all conditions. Not so Marx. The doctrine of historical materialism formulated by him showed that moral conceptions themselves arose from economic conditions which varied from age to age. While Proudhon, as the spokesman of “eternal justice,” pleaded for an “equal exchange” to abolish exploitation, Marx showed that, on the average, exchange already was equal and that the exploitation took place, not in the realm of exchange, but in that of production! Finally, Marx held that capitalism was doomed, not because it was “unjust” but because it was a fetter on further economic development and inimical to the interests of an ever-increasing majority in society.
Details like these, however, are beneath the notice of smart men like Mr. Belloc. Consequently, he proceeds to confuse materialism with fatalism. To hold that the human will is determined or shaped by the conditions of its existence is to deny its existence! This is his idea of logic !
After this the reader will not be surprised to learn that Mr. Belloc shows a common inability to distinguish between democracy and bureaucracy. He trots out the moth-eaten bogey of despotism. This may indeed prove useful for flattening out the Labour Party and other advocates of “nationalisation”; but our withers are unwrung. The bureaucrats stand or fall with the capitalist class; and, although he would probably not admit it, Mr. Belloc knows that so does the Catholic Church! Hence his animosity to Socialism, his mean, Jew-hating sneers at its scientific founder.
The mother of Marx was no immaculate virgin, but the Son of Mary uttered nothing so inspiring as the slogan—”Workers of the world unite; you have nothing to lose but your chains, you have a world to win.”
Eric Boden

Leave a Reply