One of the understudied aspects of Marxist thought is the structural similarity that obtains between communist ideology and Catholicism. A few notable Marxists have at times observed this similarity: Georges Sorel and Antonio Gramsci often noted the practical and strategic similarities between proletarian violence and the history of Catholic political action. Louis Althusser remarked in an interview that it was especially due to his Catholic roots that he became a communist in the first place, and that communism and Catholicism shared an emphasis upon the realization of “universal fraternity.” Similarly, Alexandre Kojève sometimes compared the “universal and homogenous state” to the Catholic Church, and he praised the latter’s contribution to European culture as something that would have to be preserved for the future of humanity. More recently, Raymond Geuss has noted the influence of his childhood faith upon his later sympathies with communist thinking, and he has asserted that the only two valid worldviews capable of bestowing unity and coherence amidst the chaos of modern liberalism are communism and Catholicism.
But few contemporary Marxists, and even fewer Catholic theologians, have taken the time to really delve deeply into these likenesses on a theoretical level, and in a manner that is directly applicable to the peculiar problems of contemporary neoliberal society. To be sure, Marxists and Catholics have had much to say in criticism of each other and each other’s ideologies. To Marxists, religion has often been suspected as a form of ideology that mystifies rather than clarifies the causes of social oppression; while for Christians, Marxism itself has been perceived as a source of even worse oppression than any religious violence has produced, not to mention an atheist and anti-Christian ideology. These differences, although they certainly cannot be lightly dismissed, have often precluded any reflection upon the structural similarities between them. Thus, a cue may be taken from all of the above remarks to open up just such a reflection, albeit briefly for the purposes of this publication.
The desire for the universal which has been identified as common to communism and Catholicism, as remarked by Althusser, Kojève, Guess, and others, is evident from the very names given to the two worldviews. ‘Communism’ and ‘Catholicism’ both carry the concept of universalism in their very definitions. This concept is also borne out in the worldly or political aspirations of each in structurally similar, though not identical, ways: both claim to pertain to a level of politics that transcends the limits of the modern nation state. Catholicism aims to carry out the directive of its founder, to “baptize all nations,” while communism takes aim at a system of oppression—imperialist capitalism—that is itself international and even global in scale. Catholicism locates the summit of both spiritual and temporal sovereignty in a transnational institution, the papacy, to whom all the governments of the earth are expected to pay homage (under the classical ‘integralist’ ideal), while communism seeks to be realized by way of what is effectively an international sovereign dictatorship: the united workers of the world. The universalism of the two worldviews thus translates in both cases to a form of political internationalism.
The universalism of communism’s ‘classless society’ also parallels Catholicism’s radical emphasis upon the equality of all in Christ. Where communism looks to the end of all oppression of one subset of humanity by another, standing for Kojève’s state of “universal recognition,” Catholicism aims for the dissolution of human division in the unity of Christ: “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither bond nor free, there is neither male nor female: for ye are all one in Christ Jesus.” On the basis of this Christological vision of human equality, it was arguably the radical emergence of Christianity in the late Roman Empire that began the long liberation (still underway) of disadvantaged peoples from the bonds of slavery, proclaiming that the ‘good life’ which Aristotle reserved to ‘free men’ had been extended by Christ to everyone, regardless of class, race, or sex. Indeed, it is possible to argue that communism’s classless society is nothing but the culmination of a long process of Christianity’s secularization. They are not only structurally similar, they are also genealogically related. Kojève argues an even stronger thesis, in line with his Hegelian roots: that Christianity was a necessary stage in the inevitable process of world history, laying the foundations for the universal recognition of all human beings.
In other words, communism and Catholicism share a desire, however differently expressed, to fully recognize the humanity of all persons. A rigorous concept of human nature underlies this desire. To any who object that Marx possessed no stable concept of human nature, one must reply that, according to Marx, the process of history is but the revolutionary unveiling of this human nature from the filtered lens of ideology that have for too long concealed it. Communism itself consists in no more than the shared regulation of the process of production in a manner worthy of human nature, where capitalism had regulated this process in a manner unworthy to this nature. Thus, in chapter 48 of the third volume of Capital—one of the (surprisingly) few texts where he approaches a definition of communism—Marx writes:
Freedom in [the realm of production] can only consist in socialised man, the associated producers, rationally regulating their interchange with Nature, bringing it under their common control, instead of being ruled by it as by the blind forces of Nature; and achieving this with the least expenditure of energy and under conditions most favourable to, and worthy of, their human nature.
It is precisely in its worthiness to human nature that Marx claims communism surpasses capitalism. Capitalism falls short of human nature for the reason that Marx famously identified in the Economic Manuscripts of 1844, namely that under capitalism human beings find themselves in a condition of alienation. Marx explained how the worker under capitalism is alienated from his own “species being,” reduced to a mere input in a production process, and as such can concern himself only with the fulfillment of his individual animal needs. “Estranged [or alienated] labor makes man’s species-life a means to his physical existence.” In other words, capitalism suffocates just that dimension of human nature that makes it specifically human: its capacity to act for more than the mere satisfaction of animal needs and desires, its ability to transcend mere physical existence, to pursue activities that are worthwhile for their own sake. (Marx names the creation of works of beauty as an example of such an activity.) Capitalism erases this capacity by reducing the activity of human labor—indeed, the whole activity of human life—to a mere means to physical existence.
Catholicism cautiously shares certain elements of this assessment of capitalism, and is no less damning in its excoriation of its dehumanizing and alienating tendency. But Catholicism recognizes that alienation extends beyond the sphere of labor and physical production, and also affects the spiritual orientation of human nature towards the divine. For this reason, Catholicism also has the advantage of recognizing more instances of this tendency than even Marxists tend to recognize. To be sure, the Marxist tradition does not limit its analysis of alienation to the figure of the worker. In a very real sense, the alienation of man from his species-being affects the wealthy as much as it affects the poor. Nonetheless, contemporary Catholicism has identified a whole class of non-laboring persons who suffer an unspeakable form of alienation under capitalism: namely, the unborn slaughtered by abortion, whose plight has gone mostly unnoticed by Marxists.
There are some exceptions. In 2011, a group of respected Italian Marxists—Pietro Barcelona, Paolo Sorbi, Mario Tronti, and Giuseppe Vacca—published a manifesto in which they explicitly announced their appreciation for the Catholic social tradition and its commitment to the respect for human life from the moment of conception. In particular, they expressed their appreciation for the magisterial teaching of the late Pope Benedict XVI, his war against moral relativism, and his emphasis upon the public dimension of religious faith. In the manifesto, they called for a new alliance between secular Leftists and the Catholic Church to combat the contemporary ‘anthropological emergency,’ which they characterized as the technological manipulation of life in the service of global capital. In terms drawn simultaneously from postmodern critical theory and the Catholic social tradition, they decried the dehumanizing “biopolitics” of contemporary capitalism, under which “the freedom and dignity of the human person is offended since his conception.”
In a letter responding to criticisms of their manifesto, the four ‘Ratzingerian Marxists’ (two of whom are in fact Catholic) doubled down on the explicitly pro-life stance which they adopted, basing themselves firmly upon the ideal of universal recognition that seems to be common to both communism and Catholicism. They write:
Our letter is imbued with a single purpose: that of contributing to the affirmation of a shared humanity. What could be the ‘point of union’ between believers and nonbelievers in defining the value of life? It seems to us that we are able to say that an unborn life represents a value in itself from the moment of conception, because of the responsibility that it confers upon every individual of the community to welcome it, raise it, educate it, and accompany it with love and care to its end. Those who accept this framework will have no trouble in recognizing that, whether it is a matter of the zygote, of the embryo, or of a life already formed, there can be no difference of value in the manner of behaving toward it.
Indeed, if there is one class of persons to whom the ideal of universal recognition ought above all to apply, it is the millions of unborn children who are routinely murdered in the womb before they are even allowed to enjoy the life of their ‘species-being’—to speak the language of Marx’s 1844 Manuscripts. The aborted unborn are barely even permitted their mere physical existence. They, more than any other class, go routinely unrecognized in their humanity, hidden as they are from all compassionate eyes. Inasmuch as their life, like the life of the estranged laborer, is regarded as no more than a mere physical existence, it is all-too lightly discarded when it becomes useless to the physical existence of the working parent. After all, under capitalism, this is how capital treats labor; therefore it is no surprise that this should be how the laborer will treat his—or, more pertinently, her—unborn offspring. A society founded upon universal recognition would no longer be one in which oppression thus begets only more oppression, alienation only more alienation. Such a society would have to include the unborn among those whose previously alienated humanity is now fully recognized.
But it may well be that only Catholicism can supply this missing dimension of human recognition to communism, thereby bringing the latter closer to its ideal of universalism. After all, Catholicism possesses an especially rigorous account of the ‘species being’ of the human person, whose life is fully lived only beyond the strictures of physical necessity, in the pursuit of nobler goals—architectonic among them a life devoted to the worship of the Creator. From a Catholic point of view, the inhumanity of abortion, and the late capitalist system of which it is a systemic feature, consists above all in how it deprives its victims of the opportunity to live just such a life. Human life is more than its individual physical existence; and, as such, it deserves far more than to be treated as a mere means to individual physical existence. More to the point, every individual human person is owed the chance to live according to the full potential of his human nature as a child of the Almighty. Catholicism is universal if for no other reason than its dogmatic commitment to this ideal.