The received wisdom today seems to be that, with the downfall of Soviet communism, socialism has lost its pungency.  Not only has Marxism proper reputedly crumbled, together with the Berlin Wall, but the somewhat watered-down type of socialism that survives Marxism has been forced to come to terms with its archrival, economic liberalism, which is thereby declared the real winner of the century-old competition.  The echo still rumbles of the Fukuyama pamphlet, published with a fracas as a landmark of Reagan’s triumphal march, shrouded with a vague Hegelian spirit, which hailed the end of history and the total demise of backward ideologies.

Now, it may be argued, with some reason, that quite a few basic principles of Marxist socialism, particularly its socioeconomic dogmas (the labor theory of value, the ever-increasing pauperization of the proletariat, and so forth) have been left to the critique of mice.  The irreplaceable effectiveness of private individual initiative and the corollary inefficiency of state-controlled economy (and of economic planning and collective ownership of the means of production) are generally acknowledged.

But there is something just as glaring as the achievements of economic liberalism: however obvious the failures of socialism (its economic inefficiency resulting in constant degradation of its living standards, a general shabbiness of life and dreariness of intellectual activity, etc.), socialism remains popular.  Like a wave that may once have receded, it sweeps back into power—not only in France, where its most dogmatic and backward principles prevail more than ever, but in England, Spain, Italy, Austria, Greece, Poland, and even Germany, countries in which anything is preferable to whatever smacks of rightist conservatism.  The word socialism seems to mean “better red than right.”

In other words, common sense imposes the evidence: There is something about socialism that has nothing to do with economic performance, and that is the reservoir from which it draws its continued strength, in both backward countries and the most modern ones.  The Wall has been torn down, but only as if to allow what was behind it to proceed forward without encumbrance.

Socialism, far from being dead, is actually like a subcutaneous worm eating away at the very core of our civilization.  Why?  Because, I think, socialism is deeply rooted in Western civilization, because it is somehow congenial to the Western mentality, to such an extent that I do not think socialism could have been born, had it not been for the Western soul.

I do not mean to suggest that socialism represents the essence of Western civilization: It is only a built-in weakness of it.  A heart disease stems from the structure of the heart even if  it is eventually lethal to it.

Let me try to prove this hypothesis in the simplest possible terms.

Christianity, at heart, is a galaxy of ideas revolving around a central one.  Mankind is living in a state of unhappiness and wretchedness; this world is but a valley of sorrow.  But this is man’s fault, and God, Who had not made him to be miserable, decides to help and sends His Son as a model for all men to follow in order to retrieve their original happiness.  Hence, Christianity is indeed the preaching of a revolution that will liberate man from the torments and tormenters of this world.  “Think not,” said Jesus, “that I am come to send peace on earth: I came not to send peace, but a sword” (Matthew 10:34).  Is His Kingdom a faraway dream?  Nay, for Jesus said, “As you go, preach, saying the kingdom of Heaven is at hand” (Matthew 10:7).  And what will the new world be?  Christ said it: “The last shall be the first” (Matthew 20:16 and 19:30), and again, “Blessed be ye poor, for yours is the kingdom of God, blessed are ye that hunger now, for you shall be filled . . . but woe unto you that are rich” (Luke 6:20, 25) “for it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God” (Matthew 20:24).  But how is this Kingdom to be reached?  Jesus answered: “If thou wilt be perfect, go and sell that thou hast and give to the poor” (Matthew 19:21).

Jesus’ teachings contain two crucial ideas.  The first is that men are not saved just because Christ died for their sins, as a simplistic version would have it.  Christ died because He showed that the way to a new life was to reject the present one.  This, of course, does not mean that all men have actually to die (Jesus was no Charles Manson!), but it means that all men have to strive to change their outlook on this life.

The second idea is that all men suffer, even those who are generally believed to be happy—i.e., those who appear to be endowed with all the glories of this world.  And, since they are the ones who are generally envied, since all men strive to emulate them, Jesus chooses them as perfect examples of what men should not be if they wish to be happy.  Hence, his famous words about the poor being closer to redemption than the rich.

The whole development of Christianity hinges on the meaning that is given to these three ideas: A revolution is at hand; the intercession of a savior makes the revolution possible; the revolution is complete when the first are the last.

What Jesus meant is, I think, quite obvious and has always been so to honest Christians.  He teaches, first and foremost, that, if men are unhappy, it is essentially because they have become attached beyond all reason to the wrong kind of happiness, to immediate and essentially material pleasures, and particularly wealth and whatever it can buy.  God could have made men such that they would never be lured by its temptation, but then men would not have been free creatures.  So Jesus taught that it is man’s responsibility to understand where his true happiness lies and to escape the fallacy of immediate and passing satisfactions.  Jesus never says that men should live as dogs, or practice any extreme asceticism; He only preaches detachment—a detachment that allows men to enjoy whatever is naturally enjoyable in this world without becoming enslaved by delights whose nature is to be fragile and temporary, and a detachment that allows them to realize that there may be something beyond essentially animal pleasures.  In other words, what Jesus teaches is a revolution within the soul—another way to look at things, a transformation in the way to conceive of them, a liberation whose primary engine is the freedom that every man carries within himself as a thinking being, for thought is nothing if not an ability to distance oneself from the immediate impression produced by things.  This is why Jesus can say that His Kingdom is at hand, because He means that the soul’s conversion to detachment depends only on the will of the individual.

If a revolution is about to occur, it will be because men have properly understood Christ’s words, because they will have transformed themselves out of a personal, inner effort into new men.  And then, of course, nothing will be the same any more.  But since nothing will happen unless each man has converted, it is obvious that detachment must be preached equally to rich and poor alike.  The poor do not have any particular virtue.  They are made of the same clay as the rich, of the same flesh equally prone to temptation.  The poor, looking forward to becoming rich, commit the same spiritual sin as the rich who cling to their wealth or want to increase it.  Of course, Jesus addressed the rich preferably to the poor, but that is only because the rich, if only by their being rich, show themselves to be particularly enamored of worldly glories as well as more prone to try constantly to get more.  But inasmuch as the poor are not in dire need of the essentials of life (and if they are, it is only natural that they be helped as much as they help themselves), the poor can fall prey to the same lethal illusion as the rich and strive for the wrong happiness.

However obvious the meaning of Jesus’ teachings, it is just as obvious that there is, in His words, a possible temptation for the poor to confuse deprivation of material goods with detachment from them, to attach something saintly to poverty, and to believe that He was promising salvation to the poor merely because they were poor.

Once the soul has completed its inner revolution, it becomes immune to the entrapments of this world and, particularly, to the confusion of wealth with happiness.  The true Christian will not consider making money as an end worthy of a man’s life; he will have a natural propensity to live the simple and frugal life that has been constantly praised by the agrarian tradition.  (Hence, his liberality and his natural ability to be charitable to the ones who suffer from hunger and shiver with cold.)  Eventually, some may even take asceticism as a way of life and become monks.  So, all in all, it may be said that the good Christian will not be a rich man, because he finds no particular interest in being rich.  The crucial point here, though, is that the general contempt for wealth within Christianity is but a consequence, a result, an effect of a previous spiritual decision not to count it a blessing to become ever richer.  It is because the Christian has begun his redemption that he does not care anymore about being rich.  At this point, however, there is plenty of room for a complete misreading of the words.  For, if redemption brings about an indifference to wealth, isn’t it possible to believe that the poor somehow carry some kind of predisposition to redemption?  In other words, wasn’t Jesus, while addressing the poor, saying that poverty is the only way to redemption?  Instead of poverty being the natural outcome of a conversion that turns the wretched creature into a redeemed one, indifferent to wealth (though not dedicated to wretchedness), all of a sudden it seems that poverty, being the trademark of the blessed one, becomes the means to perpetual happiness.  Suddenly, it may seem that all Jesus taught was that it is enough to be poor to be redeemed.  (Isn’t that what John Paul II referred to when he spoke of the Church’s preference for the poor?)

Jesus never said that poverty was not something difficult to endure: He praised the ones who labor not to be poor.  What He said was, very simply, that sheer wealth must not be a worthy aim in life.  (In other words, he praised a simple and frugal society.)  But now, poverty becomes a blessing in itself.  The poor man hears that the last will be first and that the time has come for him to be first and not last.  He hears that the most wretched man, the oppressed and the humiliated, is not to worry about striving for anything, because he already is all that a man should be.  He hears that he is the righteous from whom no evil can flow, the bearer of truth who can utter no lie.  He hears that, inasmuch as he is humiliated, ignorant, hungry, cold, he cannot go wrong, think untruly, nor want unjustly.  He hears that he is a perfection of a man.  (Significantly, perfect is the word that will be used by some heretics—the Cathars, who thought they had become perfect by shedding all interest in material things—to describe themselves.)

And so Jesus’ words about the coming of His Kingdom assume an entirely different meaning, the complete reverse of the true one.

If the poor are redeemed by their very povertyi.e., by being what they already are—then the revolution they were promised can no longer be the inner one that Jesus preached: What could the poor change themselves into, since they already embody everything that a man can hope to be?  If there is to be a revolution, it must be a revolution outside of themselves, in the outside world, not in their own hearts and consciences.  Such a revolution will benefit the poor but will not make any demands on them.

Can it be a revolution in the universe, the climate, the resources at hand?  Possibly: Has not Yahweh promised His people a land of milk and honey, where bread would be aplenty?  But, then, they were the chosen people.  The common ones are offered something much simpler and more logical.  Since their perfection stems from being deprived of worldly goods, but, at the same time, the society they live in is a society in which they are unhappy because of their poverty, then it is obvious that the promised revolution is that of this world simply turned upside down, a revolution within the society.  This is why Jesus can announce that the new kingdom is at hand, because the new world already exists, though in a sort of veiled form.  All that is needed is an unveiling, and, since the new world is just the reverse of the old one, this unveiling can very naturally be called a revolution.  And a revolution that will change the condition of the poor is a social revolution.  (Of course, this social revolution does not really need a god any more to lead it.  All the pseudoprophets who appeared as early as the beginning of the fifth century, up to Marx and Lenin in our time, were quick to grasp this conclusion.)

Now, it may be argued that the revolution needed to introduce the new society must aim only at eliminating wealth.  Since the poor are the blessed ones, the good society must comprise only those who are able to shed their earthly goods.  This implies that they renounce possessing any and become critical of private property.  The trend was so logical that even true Christians espoused it: The monastic movement began toward the end of the Roman Empire, among other reasons, as a reaction against earthly pleasures and the splendor of the Church Herself, which grew in proportion to Her development as a dominant social and political institution.  The same process worked within the monastic movement: The successive reformations that gave birth to the different orders were born out of an urge to fight the increasing temporality of the successful monasteries.  Of course, there is a world of difference between such heresies as that of Joachim de Fiore or the flagellants or the Cathars and the homilies of St. Francis of Assisi, who derived his asceticism from his exclusive love of God and did not take it as a voucher for salvation.  Nonetheless, as long as there still prevailed some remnants of spiritual inspiration, poverty remained among the heretics the path to salvation, and equality through poverty, the sign of brotherhood: We could add to the list of the aforementioned heretics the Beguins’ movement and even Campanella’s socialist utopia at the beginning of the 17th century.

This path could only be a dead end, however.  Since poverty was not the result of a spiritual conversion but was only understood as the key to Paradise, it could not be taken readily as a permanent way of life.  It had to be enforced: The well-known social utopias that flourished at the dawn of the modern age very clearly exemplify the inner contradiction between the idea that the last should be first and the notion that the poor should remain poor.  Thomas More in the 16th century, Campanella in the 17th, Abbot Mably in the 18th, together with their ilk, advocated, each in his own right, a society both dedicated to the perfect happiness of the poor in this world and ridden with austere rules and severe regulations (such as uniform clothing and the death penalty for deviants) to create and maintain a total absence of private property among the citizens.  How could material austerity really appeal to people who conceived of themselves as suffering from material deprivation?  How could even a fair and universal distribution of poverty spontaneously appear as its complete suppression?  If the poor are the blessed ones, they cannot dream of a world in which everyone would be poor; they must dream of a world in which the poor would be rich.

And that is indeed how modern socialism was eventually born, as a vision of an “earthly paradise” in which abundance would reign supreme.  As Saint-Simon put it at the beginning of the 19th century, socialism came to be a doctrine dedicated to the well-being of the poor—or to making the poor rich.  “Social organization,” he repeated endlessly, “must orient society towards its main goal, which is to provide the maximum possible well-being for those who make up the most numerous and the most miserable part of any society.”  It is remarkable that Saint-Simon endeavored to found a new religion, which he very aptly called the “New Christianity” and which, in his mind, was nothing but the finally revealed truth of Christianity.  Orthodox Christianity was obviously essentially an effort to trigger an inner revolution in the souls of both the rich and the poor.  Saint-Simon was logical: When the material conditions of life are raised to the level of criteria for true happiness, it is only natural that the revolution become a socioeconomic one.

A daunting question cannot be evaded: Where can the wealth come from, out of which all the poor will be made rich?  Historically, as well as logically, there were three successive answers to this question, which grew in sophistication with the passing centuries.

The first to be put to the test is also the most primitive.  If the poor are the redeemed, then does it not follow that the rich are the wicked?  If the poor are the good, the rich must be the bad.  Again, if the poor had been only people who did not confuse wealth with redemption, the opposition would not have been as severe; once material poverty per se equaled redemption, however, there could not be any redeemed among the rich.  A decisive step toward socialism was taken when a rich man came to be considered as an evil man merely because he was rich.  His riches became the very embodiment of his villainy, villainously acquired, and, to put it in a nutshell, stolen.  Thus, there could be no harm in being unjust toward the unjust and putting a claim on his property.  Throughout the Middle Ages, most of the millenarian movements, which had started by extolling poverty, ended up, sooner rather than later, in looting and robbing in the name of justice, and, eventually, in the enjoyment of all possible sensual pleasures and just plain debauchery.  (To wit, the Anabaptists of Münster, who eventually reigned only by terror, until they were hanged with the general approval of the people.)  The endeavor was nevertheless doomed from the beginning: Even barring the victims’ possible resistance, looting had no future, since the loot would eventually run out.

So there came to be a second wave of socialism.  Since the bounty had to be renewed constantly, the cornerstone of society became labor and its organization.  There is such a thing as industrial socialism, a species whose evolution started under the guise of utopias, from the 16th century on, and ended with the Soviet workers’ paradise.  It consists basically in an attempt to organize the whole society rationally, to maximize the efficiency of individual labor.  This involved, of course, the elimination of all nonworking people and all possible exploiters, for which purpose the most obvious means appeared to be the abolition of private property.

However socialistic the project may look, it is definitely labor oriented—so much so, indeed, that one is quickly faced with a sort of military body (Saint-Simon, for instance, has no qualms about referring to “iron regiments of workers”), obeying harsh and detailed rules that hardly evoke the earthly comforts of the Promised Land.  It may be that there are no more owners or absentee owners, but obeying the supposedly rational regulations of the demanding managers who have replaced them does not make work any more pleasant.  Here, the redeemed ones have found a very dubious salvation, when work replaces the enjoyment of the products of work.  And, in any case, why should a perfect being have to sweat and toil?  Man was not made for work, claimed Saint-Simon himself.

Hence, the last stage of socialism.  Reduced to its essentials, it consists in substituting organized exploitation for haphazard pillaging, while preserving the constant replenishment of the common soup tureen.  The socialist in the Middle Ages looted the rich on the claim that the latter were evil, which had the inconvenience of exhausting his supplies.  Our modern socialist has understood how silly it is to kill the goose who lays the golden egg, so he lets the eggs hatch, and even encourages their hatching, but then demands his share upon the “scientifically” (Marx was here!) proved assumption that the rich became rich by exploiting the poor.  Thus, the poor do not rob the rich any more; they only recover what is theirs.  This is the gist of what is usually called social democracy.  The system still works today, but it seems obvious that the sheep cannot keep happily producing wool if all they get for it is to be shorn.

Modern socialism, being a craving for wealth without the means to provide it, ends up reverting to what was its starting point: looting, whether overt or in disguise, as in the social-democratic system.  But since looting can only be a temporary expedient, modern socialism is facing a hopeless future.  Stalin encountered the dilemma in the 1930’s: After exploiting the resurrected kulaks to the point of depriving them of any incentive to work, he was at a dead end, unable to feed his population.  It is rather extraordinary that, from then on, communism revived almost spontaneously a form of socialism even more primitive than the looting one.  It may be summed up in a sort of strikingly clever tautology.  If everybody is poor, then nobody is rich.  This means that, for everybody to be rich, it is enough that everybody be poor.  Then, all of a sudden, an extremely ascetic society may be viewed as an opulent one, provided everybody starts making sure that nobody gets any richer than he is.

I can only hope I have suggested enough to make a few conclusions understandable.

What is socialism?  Briefly, it seems to me that it is the primeval heresy of Christianity; in one word, it is the sociological form of what the theologians call sin.

Men were created free, with a limitless will that includes the will to do what may be harmful to them.  This is why, contrary to popular belief, freedom is not a good thing in itself, but only if it is properly used.  Freedom is man’s glory, but it is also his weakness.  And this is why men have to be educated, whether it be by some supernatural teacher or by those to whom life has taught something (the elders).

The primeval heresy had to be, under the circumstances, not so much the temptation to do whatever may have been forbidden (by nature, experience, God) as pride, the conviction that one can get away with whatever one did, that one knows better, that one has enough knowledge or is able to acquire it anyway—in other words, that one is somehow a self-sufficient creature.  But this is precisely what socialism has always taught and has never stopped teaching since it emerged from its original chrysalis, that of a religious heresy, the original misinterpretation of Christ’s words.  For it stems from the notion that some men—the poor—are actually perfect.  (In all socialist movements, there is always a claim of purity that is supposed to be more and more completely fulfilled as one acquires more influence in the movement: The Communist Party boasted it was composed of the purest proletarians among the proletariat, its avant-garde.)

With the poor providing from then on a model for all men, what they wish is what all men should also wish.  Socialism is therefore responsible for the idea that man’s primary worry should be to satisfy all of his possible material needs.

Hence, its second legacy.  Because socialism underwrites the notion that, since some men are perfect, these men do not have to be taught anything and are entitled to judge everything from their particular, subjective point of view, socialism is responsible for the spread of barbarity.  For barbarity is nothing but an inability to conceive of oneself as capable of betterment, a total acceptance of what one is, whatever that may be, a self-centeredness that prevents any inkling that one could be different from what one is—in other words, a total blindness to the idea that man is supposed to achieve his own humanity, or that some men may be better than others.  Socialism, as the ultimate outcome of a spiritual sin, is responsible for the triumph of a kind of man who conceives of his most primitive instincts as totally irreproachable, whether they be defined as an attraction for pleasure or as a natural propensity to confuse what he is with what it is right for him to be.  (This is the origin of the Rights of Man.)  Socialism is thus responsible for the general decay of true education in formerly Christian societies, as well as of all institutions and values that are its natural props, such as the family.  And it is also at the root of a mass culture that values easy accessibility over true learning, immediate satisfaction over intellectual effort, impressions over ideas, general lowering of the standards of taste rather than raising them by education.  Socialism is responsible for the confusion of vulgarity with culture.

The third legacy of socialism is the corollary of the second: It brought about a culture of guilt and a culture of resentment, very closely interconnected.  How could one of the main themes of socialism, the sanctification of the poor, not take an acute relevance in a society that, overwhelmingly if not exclusively, valued money and wealth?  Under the development of economic activities, and their progressive exclusive dominance over all other types of human activity, it looked more and more as if only two kinds (two classes, Marx would say) of people remained: the haves and the have-nots.  When the value of wealth predominates, men obviously are ready to do anything to get wealthy, whatever the means, since there is nothing they respect more than wealth.  The culture associated with the worship of the golden calf therefore fueled a spectacular updating of the age-old misinterpretation of the traditional Christian teachings.  It is only too natural to believe that Jesus had the relief of the wretched in mind, when the world is enslaved to Mammon, a cult that entails an ever-increasing hostility of man toward man and, therefore, an indifference to the exploitation of man by man.  Having lapsed into a radical economic mentality, men have become more than ever unable to understand the words of Jesus in any language but their own.  And so, it is not surprising that the ancient heresy has now bred a sense of guilt in the minds of the rich: The Catholic Church Herself, supposedly the bearer and teacher of the Word, has fallen into the socialist trap and, instead of preaching detachment to everyone, has declared the right of the poor to get rich, and the duty of the rich to give up wealth, because it actually belongs to those who are most in need of it.  This teaching is doubly unorthodox, because it leads to the confusion of wealth with salvation, but also because it revives the feeling that the poor have nothing to do but wait for the manna to descend upon them.  The same logic breeds a growing resentment on the part of the poor.  Whatever the rich do, they are evil, whether they resist (and, thus, appear all the more evil) or part with their riches, which makes them appear to be yielding to the feeling that they have no right to them.

The fourth legacy of socialism is war.  How could resentment not breed an encompassing hostility not only between rich and poor but among the poor themselves?  When all preexistent wealth is exhausted, all that will be left to the poor will be to snatch the crumbs of a long-gone feast from one another’s mouths.  After taking Peter’s throne, and preventing the teaching of detachment, socialism fans the flames of general warfare of all against all, as if it were still to be proved that all heresies end up with man murdering his brother.  This means that socialism is also responsible for the death of all feeling of community and friendship between men (which is hardly surprising, since it is the heretical reversal of the religion of love and brotherhood, and materialism always fosters mutual hatred).  Wherever socialism triumphs, nations die.  But the much-vaunted socialist internationalism amounts to one part of mankind declaring war on the other (which is exactly what Marx called for).  This signifies substituting the vague, purely circumstantial, and evasive unity of the poor of this world for the mutual support that nations were supposed to provide to their citizens.  True enough, economic liberalism and democratic logic had already undermined their fabric.  But socialism is sure to run into the ground what is left of it.

When understood in this way, socialism appears as the real inspiration of radical democracy and, therefore, also as its goal: Radical democracy must be conceived as a step toward the complete fulfillment of the socialist nightmare.  Socialism needs democracy, for it needs a political system in which the perfection of man is acknowledged.  And this is exactly what is achieved by the notion that every citizen is a sovereign.  But socialism ascribes its future to radical democracy, for no man can be both perfect and discontented without attributing his discontent to an exterior cause, without holding something or someone responsible.  But democracy, even a radical one, is rather loath to acknowledge that the sovereignty of one citizen is the worst enemy of the sovereignty of another.  So, democracy is useful to socialism, even necessary to its maturing, but only to a point, beyond which it must be transcended as being only formal.  It must evolve into a system in which some may be systematically held responsible for the misery and, therefore, for the maintenance of those who will henceforth be declared the only true citizens—the poor.  Radical democracy needs socialism to turn the enemy of every citizen’s freedom into a source of wealth for every sovereign citizen.  As Lenin (almost) said: Socialism is democracy plus electricity.

Finally, the American reader should be aware that radical democracy and socialism are logically nigh impossible wherever the opinion holds that men are basically imperfect (if not downright vicious) creatures.  Socialism is the hidden cancer that destroys predominantly Catholic societies, because Catholicism is particularly prone to socialism.  There is, in Catholicism, a deeply ingrained faith in the possible regeneration of human nature.  That some men are doomed is an idea familiar to Saint John, not so much to Saint Thomas, and completely forgotten by contemporary theologians.  I cannot help thinking that, even though Calvinism, properly speaking, has waned in the American mentality, and Puritans are an endangered species, Calvin’s pessimism about human nature has more or less unconsciously lingered in the recesses of the minds of many Americans and has infused them with a spirit of self-reliance that is the basic antidote to socialism.  Whether this spirit will last is another story, which hinges on another question: For how long will true Americans retain the control of their own country?