a christmas message from the vatican: marx was right!

Introduction by Chris Ford

Published below is what may appear a rather unusual article entitled ‘What Remains of Marx’ by Professor Georg Sans published in La Civiltà Cattolica, a Jesuit paper, closely monitored by the Vatican. It was then republished by the Vatican’s own newspaper L’Osservatore Romano giving it added endorsement by the Roman Catholic Church on 21 October. What is so important is that Sans gives a strong endorsement to Marx’s critique of capitalist society. Now for a Christian to positively engage with Marx in itself is not unusual: there have been Christian communists for many years, furthermore there continues to be strong movement of liberation theology especially in Latin America.

What is important in this article is where it has been published – with clear Vatican approval. The Vatican has especially in the post-war period waged a campaign against the radical left-wing of Christianity, for example the Christian communist movement in Italy was hounded by the hierarchy. The current Pope Benedict XVI earned the nickname the ‘Panzer Cardinal’ when under his predecessor Pope John Paul II he lead the campaign against liberation theology in Latin America. One of the leading theorists of that movement, Leonardo Boff wrote that the Pope saw liberation theology as a “Trojan horse” for Communism: “He convinced himself that in Latin America, Communism was the danger, whereas the true danger was savage and colonialist capitalism, with its anti-people and retrograde elites.” Of the current Pope he wrote: “Like his principal counsellor, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger [now Pope Benedict XVI], the Pope put forward an Augustinian vision of history, where what counts is only that which passes through the mediation of the Church, which carries with it the supernatural concept of salvation… This position led him to a total incomprehension of Latin American theology of liberation”. Boff concluded: “To the outside, he presented himself as a champion of dialogue, of liberty, tolerance, peace, and ecumenism, but within the Church he shuttered the right of expression, banned dialogue, and created a theology with powerful fundamentalist overtones”.

It is against this recent history of the campaign against liberation theology and corresponding retrogressionist trends illustrated in Church policy on gender and sexuality that the article below is of importance. It is noteworthy that whilst the article has been widely reported it has not been published in any of the Catholic press in the UK or Ireland. This is perhaps a reflection of the weakness of the left-wing of Christianity in the UK and Ireland, as regards Marxism there has only been a few Marxian theologians such as Alisdair MacIntyre and Rev.John Marsden. This conservatism has been compounded by the crude nature of the left’s own engagement with religious affairs, either accommodating to conservative trends such as in opposition to war, or taking an undifferentiated approach and failing to see the more radical emancipatory currents which also emerge: the article by Sans below is clearly an expression of the latter current. The article is published in full by The Commune, appropriately on Christmas Day, the official celebration of the birth of Jesus, the leader of a movement against oppression and inequality, who was later crucified by the Roman overlords.

What remains of Marx?

by Georg Sans

From the misery of the proletariat Karl Marx was led to conclude that alienation could be neutralised only by the elimination of capitalism and abolishing private property. However, the history of Marxism has taught us that all attempts of introducing communism violently have led to greater injustice and misery. What is therefore left of Marx, the philosopher and the economist, twenty years after the fall of the Berlin Wall?

The novelty of the Parisian manuscripts consisted in connecting anthropological and philosophical-social issues with the economic problems. As Marx illustrates the principles and the theories of economic science have strong foundations. Especially as far as the fundamental object of every financial matter is concerned: money. ” capital”, is indeed a treatment of the very nature of money. Marx worked for more than thirty years on his main work, of which he only completed the first volume.

Critically challenging representatives of classical political economy, Adam Smith and David Ricardo, Marx seeks to transform money into capital. While the money that one possesses is necessary, in principle, to be exchanged in order to acquire different things for daily needs, the function of payment of capital is purely theoretic. Who possesses or wants to possess capital desires that it grows. This desire is not at all a sign of cupidity or greed, but it simply reveals the very function of capital.

According to Marx capital originates, so to speak, as a secondary product of work, when the employer sells the goods produced and earns more than what he pays his employees.

The employer certainly needs money to buy machinery and raw material in order to produce new goods; but he gets profit only when he refuses to give employees the just portion of what is gained through the sale. Capital grows only thanks to the work done by employees beyond the measure of the value of their labour power. ‘It produces surplus-value, which smiles at the capitalist with all the fascination of something created from scratch’. Although the Marxist theory of value has spawned multiple objections in the sphere of economics, recently it has generated new interest. A new reading of Marx has started, especially in Germany and Italy, thanks to the attention given to his preliminary works before ‘Capital’ now the integral critical work of Marx and Engels is published, which attempts to free it from a determinist vision of the history the first critical elements of Capitalism, formulated by the mature Marx. The primary supposition of this work is that social injustice that can be found everywhere in capitalist society is not simply the consequence of wrong individual conduct, but it finds its roots in the way money becomes capital. According to these studies, Marx highlighted that, contrary to external appearances, money is not a simple object of exchange and it is not be correct to say that money in the bank or in the purse ‘works’ for its owner. It is no exaggeration to say that nothing has damaged the interests of Marx the philosopher more than Marxism. The ideological abuse, which lasted for decades, the excessive exaltation of the significance of his thinking has led, first, a resolute denial and, in obstinate misunderstandings. Twenty years after the end of the Cold War should now be high time to draw a balance sheet.

For this purpose it is necessary to distinguish between Marx of the communist party and Engels from the young Marx and author of Capital. Furthermore it is necessary to give pre-eminence to the observer critical of all rigid dogma. Researches conducted on the evolution of his thought have shown that Marx was much less determined in his beliefs than is commonly thought.

Also, a debate that desires to be productive presumes that one knows how to carefully distinguish between the various elements which compose Marxist theory. Therefore, for example, nobody will find the materialist conception of history convincing – that considers the ‘material production of immediate life as a foundation of history’. And in the same way the materialist vision of man is similarly too reductive – according to which our culture can only be understood only relation to the physical needs and the concrete activity of man. This however is not an attempt to pronounce a judgment on the nature of alienated labour, nor the unresolved problem of the origin of surplus-value. These are the questions that face the study of Marx today. We should be grateful to the philosopher for the idea that the human being is also considered in light of the mode of production and of the form of economic management that predominate in society.

After the fall of communism it is not a matter of condemning every private property as bad or unjust in itself. The experience of the previous century has shown sufficiently that the difficulties that have augmented with industrialisation cannot be overcome by collectivising property. Much more urgent is the problem of the equal participation of all men, and not just the ones who are part of the decision processes – financial and political. The fact that a large part of humanity remains outside a social co-participation can be considered with Karl Marx as the alienation of man from himself, as a social being.

Another aspect of the alienation, of which we are certainly more aware, is the one that concerns man with respect to nature. It not necessary to be a materialist in order to recognise that harmony between human beings and their natural environment must be established. It is not about simply relating to a vital space or finding food, but taking into account the man who is constituted of the unity of one spirit and body. Inconsiderate exploitation of natural resources and the consequent destruction of the environment, show us how necessary it is to form an integral vision of man. Finally we have to ask ourselves, with Marx, whether the forms of alienation of which he spoke have their origin in the capitalist system. Although today one is broadly in agreement with the Marxist theory of wages and prices it does not find correspondence in concrete economic situations, the question of the origin of the surplus-value has not lost its legitimacy at all. “If money as such does not multiply on its own, how are we to explain the accumulation of wealth in the hands of the few? However so far it does not seem to contradict Marxist thesis, that in the end it is always the actual work of someone that creates the excessive wealth of others. Obviously this statement has to be framed and nuanced in light of other considerations, for instance the role of intelligence, acquired knowledge and time.

Certainly, it has become common fashionable to counter ‘the market economy’, understanding in a positive sense to capitalism understood in its negative sense. But this contraposition remains imprecise, as long as it is not sustained by a general theory of money. Also from this point of view it is not convenient, today as in the past, to simply leave the critique of Marx’s political economy to the left.

By Georg Sans on “l’Osservatore Romano”

12 thoughts on “a christmas message from the vatican: marx was right!

  1. Interestingly, the same issue of Civilta Cattolica also features an article entitled “Critical reflections on the positions of Wu Ming”.

    As readers may know, Wu MIng is an Italian Marxist literary collective, including some of the authors of Q, the novel about the communistic peasants’ revolt in Germany led by Thomas Muentzer…


  2. Importantly MacIntyre is not a ‘theologian’. He is a philosopher whose work has been of interest to theologians. He is also now a catholic but his philosophy is in no sense only of interest to catholics or theologians. After Virtue is probably his most famous work and repays reading by Marxists. But two books of note are firstly a collection of writings he made when self consiously aligned to the Marxist tradition (Macintyres engagement with Marxism edited by Neil Davidson and Paul Blackledge now out in a more affordable paperback edition) and his latest work Dependent Rational Animals also relatively affordable, which should be of great interest to Marxists. A lecture in which he summerises his philosophical development can be viewed here. Its tough going for non-philosophers but for those with an interest in such matters repays viewing. For leftist trainspotters its interesting that he concludes by paying tribute both to dissident catholic intellectuals and…Mike Kidron…



  3. This isn’t that far removed from some of the more official Roman Catholic positions. The Church was always wary about capitalist modernity, and especially financialized capitalism. It took until the final quarter of the 19th century before the Vatican finally broke with the notion of retaining or reviving a pure feudalism. The concern here about articulating a “a general theory of money” is not out of place with much earlier Vatican thought that didn’t really appreciate or accept the important role of the finance sector in contemporary capitalism.

    This is partly because the main concern of the Church is what happens when the economic forces of modernity slip away from the moral (or otherwise) regulation of the Church, most evident in contemporary late capitalism. This concern has come from the Church’s recognition of the qualitative changes in society that emerge with changes in the economy, to the family and broader culture especially. So when the article says “Certainly, it has become common fashionable to counter ‘the market economy’, understanding in a positive sense to capitalism understood in its negative sense” it reflects the recognition in the Church that keeping the economy, and hence capitalism, as a discrete social sphere, sealed away from the rest of society, is impossible.

    Pope Ratzinger’s comments in Brazil a few years back, condemning capitalism and Marxism for marginalizing God and creating social problems like drugs and greed, is indicative of the party line.

    I think this article is actually coming kind of close to the Red Tory stuff here in the UK. There’s a desire to get away from the contradictions of linking Chrisitanity with neoliberalism, but what they’re advocating is basically a return to mid-century Christian Democracy. Having said that, as your introduction makes clear, there’s all sorts of genuinely radical stuff going on amongst Catholics. Official and semi-official documents are just one element of Catholic life, of varying importance.

    To explain it in the spirit of the season, though, the mandarins of Rome kind of want capitalism to look like this.


  4. That is of course true. However one reason why the debate is potentially more interesting is that if, in the 19th century, the development of capitalism did hold out prospects for the mass of humanity (as well as, of course, war and colonization) its very unclear that this is the case today. If early intellectual representatives of an emerging capitalist class (Adam Smith, John Hume etc) could be even more brutal about the fate that should be reserved for those unable or unwilling to adapt to the system, it was still the case that the development of capitalism meant that there were new social structures capable of integrating the masses into a new social system (thus the brutal destruction of feudal society in scotland paved the way for a new industrial society). It is very unclear that this is happening in most societies today. One strength of Harman’s Zombie capitalism is that he raises these questions in relationship to the shape of urban social structure in developing countries were the millions being pushed off the land simply swells the ranks of self-employed petite bourgoise (existing in the most miserable conditions) rather then the ranks of the working class. Capitalism is no longer progressive and in this context these ideas find new audiences who may interpret them differently.


  5. Where is Terry Eagleton when you need him?

    Sans’ article, significant though it is, coming from a Papist, doesn’t have the philosophical clarity of the Boss.

    Take the essay in the Spring 1996 issue of “Communio” by Joseph Ratzinger.

    “I believe that the content which people generally associate with the demand for freedom is very aptly explained in the words of a certain passage of Karl Marx in which he expresses his own dream of freedom. The state of the future Communist society will make it possible, he says, ‘to do one thing today and another tomorrow; to hunt in the morning, fish in the afternoon, breed cattle in the evening and criticize after dinner, just as I please…. ‘ This is exactly the sense in which average opinion spontaneously understands freedom: as the right and the opportunity to do just what we wish and not to have to do anything which we do not wish to do.”


    “Eventually, Marxism even came to be seen as the power by which the Christian doctrine of redemption could finally be transformed into a realistic praxis of liberation—as the power whereby the kingdom of God could be concretely realized as the true kingdom of man. The collapse of “real socialism” in the nations of Eastern Europe has not entirely extirpated such hopes, which quietly survive here and there while searching for a new face. The political and economic collapse was not matched by any real intellectual defeat, and in that sense the question posed by Marxism is still far from being resolved.”

    He also says: “there will never be an absolutely ideal state of things within our human history, and the definitive order of freedom will never be established… Whoever claims that it will is not telling the truth. Faith in progress is not false in every respect. What is false, however, is the myth of the liberated world of the future, in which everything will be different and good. We can erect only relative orders, which can never be and embody right except in their relative way. But we must strive precisely for this best possible approximation to what is truly right…”

    Benedict’s attitude to Marx is far removed from Cold War ideology. He understand’s Marx’s Marxism as a philosophy of freedom, and says that is precisely what’s wrong with it.


  6. Importantly, Eagleton is deeply indebted to MacIntyre. Something very clear from an examination of his footnotes.


  7. Interestingly the Pope renewed his criticism of Liberation Theology telling a group of Bishops earlier in the month to re-read his earlier critique of liberationism, emphasising concern for the poor should avoid mixing with Marxist concepts of class struggle the consequence of which was “rebellion, division, dissent, offence and anarchy” which was still causing division. The above article published by the Jesuits and ongoing activities of the other liberationists clearly reveal ongoing welcome cracks in the retrogressive monolith.


  8. The above article published by the Jesuits and ongoing activities of the other liberationists clearly reveal ongoing welcome cracks in the retrogressive monolith.

    Chris, I think the term ‘monolith’ overestimates the regressive abilities of the Vatican and various other official apparatuses of the church. Official doctrines proclaimed in Latin-titled encyclicals and similar are often as effective in filtering down to the masses (especially in much of the Americas) as wealth is in neoliberal economies.

    Reading it again, I think that this article may be more of a containment strategy than evincing cracks in anti-radical teachings. As you say, the Pope is reiterating his abhorrence of anything smacking of Marxism and the key phrase here may be this:

    For this purpose it is necessary to distinguish between Marx of the communist party and Engels from the young Marx and author of Capital. Furthermore it is necessary to give pre-eminence to the observer critical of all rigid dogma. Researches conducted on the evolution of his thought have shown that Marx was much less determined in his beliefs than is commonly thought.

    They want a Marx agonizing over the fallen state of the world in capitalist modernity who, being outside the Church, floundered and came up empty handed in trying to find a solution. (Much like the approach of many a Marxist to anarchists today.) This reminds me of the way a Hindu scholar once explained to me the incorporation of Christ into the religious life of some Hindus, “if you can’t beat ’em, treat ’em as subordinates.”


  9. The author does strike me as repeating the errors of Althusser and co with regard to the so-called epistomological break in Marx’s thought between the young humanist Marx of the Paris manuscripts and the mature Marx of Capital, (a view Mattick andCatoriados also accept in their abhorence of Marx’s humanism). If it is a containment strategy then there would need to be something to contain in the first place either within or without, which just proves that no matter how much repression and bans are imposed by the hierarchy the old red mole keep coming back.


  10. Are you turning Marxist ? Are you only interested to appropriate some anti-system legacy of Marx to save self from future wrath ?


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