Podcast 5: A Debate on Socialism

Malcolm Schluenderfritz and Philip debate socialism. In our last episode, number 4, we discussed the moral problems in our current economic order. (Listen to episode 4 first if you haven’t done so.) In this episode, we discuss whether socialism could provide an alternative. Listeners are reminded of the caveat from our last episode; economics and politics are contentious topics. If you disagree with one or both of us in this debate, please let us know!

Topics covered include: Socialism; Capitalism; Distributism; third ways; the problem of words used as slogans; profit; workers; ownership of the means of producing wealth; economic classes; Benedict XVI; First Things; Democratic vs Totalitarian Socialism; “Europe and it’s Discontents”; Socialism from Above vs Socialism from Below; John Paul I; Co-ops; personal responsibility; Peter Maurin; “the determining number”; community; monasteries; love as a motivator; Tanzania; individualism; governments; “the vegetable garden political party”; culture wars; non-political solutions; Aristotle; material goods; Pacem in Terris; St. John XXIII; Marx; Civil Rights; William Wilberforce; systems; prudence; solidarity; earthly power; Racism; virtues; practice; false resignation; Thomas Aquinas; multi-purpose solutions; St. Francis of Assisi; Franciscan Third Order; Alasdair MacIntyre; Trotsky; Base Ecclesial Communities; international solidarity; Pope Francis; evangelizing; and The One Thing is Three.

(All transcripts edited for clarity and readability.)


  • Zeb

    I really enjoyed both episodes! I was a bit disappointed to hear you both brush off distributism, but maybe I can come on and give it its due some time. I was also a little disappointed by how vaguely Philip defined socialism. He says of distributism that it always resolves into either capitalism or socialism, but of course that is true if you define capitalism and socialism broadly enough. But in defining them so broadly one can’t know what in practice the capitalist or socialist is arguing for or against, except “not capitalism” and “not socialism.” Distributism comes from a concern for the particular structure and function of ownership, production and governance that is informed by practical experience and theoretical understanding of the relationships between man, creation and God. The distributist concerns for subsidiarity, freedom, and the dignity of work are in opposition to the tendencies of centralization, totalizing and technologizing of both capitalism and socialism. Whether you want to argue that “distributism is actually just a form of capitalism/socialism” is academic; the important thing is that it is the particular form of economics suited to man and compliant to Catholic doctrine. Of course one may say the whole subject is academic since none of us are senators or CEOs who can actually determine the nature of a national and increasingly global economic regime. But I do think a limited study of economic and political justice is useful to people pursuing community, because we may learn better ways to plan our own communities which may develop into parallel polities, and a right understanding can help us to avoid being taken in by worldly political projects which so often capture the attention and imagination of fervent Catholics on both the left and the right.

    • Malcolm Schluenderfritz

      We’d be glad to have you join us for a podcast episode! Let me know about your availability.

      I guess my frustration with distributism (I identified as a distributist for years, and still find distributist ideas valuable) is that it often seems content free. Some distributists sound like Ayn Rand, some distributists sound almost communist, and everything in between! Gilbert magazine has just decided that distributism should really be called “localism”, and while I disagree with that decision, for a long time many distributists have been nothing more or less than localists.

      Not that localism is a bad thing, but it isn’t sufficient by itself, and as usually practiced it is just nostalgia or aesthetics that are unlikely to change anything.

      Philip, of course, wouldn’t agree with your characterization of socialism as necessarily totalitarian or centralizing. In any case, my opinion is that the name “socialism” has been so tainted by totalitarianism that it should be scrapped.

      On a local level, though, I find that the usefulness of these labels starts to break down. I think a healthy local economy would be community oriented rather than individually oriented; does that make is socialist? I think a healthy local economy would be one in which a “determining number” of workers owned their own “means of production;” does that make it distributist? I guess I’d say that on the level of local community building, socialism and distributism can start to look rather similar.

      All that said, I don’t call myself socialist, distributist, or anything else, since I think such labels tend to divide; I’d prefer to call myself Christian and simply propose that Christians should behave in certain ways when doing economics.

      After all, doing economics is more important than thinking about them. I’m sure many libertarians, socialists, etc. end up acting as Christians on a local, practical level, and that seems to me to be more important than what we label what we’re doing.

      I’d like to add that the distinction between communal ownership and individual ownership of the means of production is not so clear cut as it may seem. What is ownership? A bundle of rights honored by society. What if one had a right to use a piece of land, but not to sell it? Does one still own that piece of land? Or does the community own it? I think that distributists sometimes ignore the fact that modern, absolute property rights didn’t exist in many traditional societies, and that once absolute property rights are recognized (the right of “abuse, use and sale”) local communities will almost certainly break down and wealth will almost certainly become unequally distributed. As Pope Francis said in Fratteli Tutti, “the Christian tradition has never recognized the right to private property as absolute or inviolable, and has stressed the social purpose of all forms of private property.” Without at least some communal ownership/control over the means of production, this social purpose seems unlikely to be fulfilled. (This does not mean I think “the government,” let alone the current American government, should provide this role. I think the substitution of “the government” for “society” is a problem. Our social engagement is increasingly funneled through national politics, and we should try to reverse that.)

      Many Distributist thinkers do recognize the important role of society in economics, and do realize that private property can’t be an absolute right, if only so that all may exercise their right to own at least a little productive property! If those points are properly understood, I have no problem with Distributism. Currently, however, the “Libertarian/Localist/Isolationist” strain seems to predominate in Distributist circles, which is another reason I tend to shy away from the term.

    • Philip, amateur socialist


      Thanks for listening, and for your comment. I knew the Distributists would come after me!

      A word of clarification on definitions, which, incidentally, Malcolm has also pressed me on. I should probably have been clearer on the pod. Then again, the whole point is to get people talking.

      There are plenty of political-economic arrangements that are neither capitalism, nor socialism. However, *under capitalism* there is only one way out. That’s the crux here. You write:

      “Distributism comes from a concern for the particular structure and function of ownership, production and governance that is informed by practical experience and theoretical understanding of the relationships between man, creation and God.”

      Yet it’s hard to see how any of this can get us out of capitalism. Either huge aggregations of wealth and productive property end up in the hands of the few, or they don’t. If they don’t, tell us how we get wealth and productive property out of the hands of the few via the Distributist model.

      You also say that what Distributists call us to is “in opposition to the tendencies of centralization, totalizing and technologizing of both capitalism and socialism”

      Here I’ll refer once again to Hal Draper (and to the Catholic Liberation Theology tradition. See Dussel’s commentary on Laborem Exercens) who reminds us that socialism is fought for and won *by workers* and run *by workers.* From below. That is, democratically. The “totalizing” tendencies you speak of are characteristic of undemocratic regimes which includes both market capitalism and state capitalism.


      Finally, I’ll say that it is perfectly coherent to argue for “not-capitalism” and call it “socialism” insofar as there is a sort of negative case at the core of socialist political-economy. We see the extraordinary inequality, disparity and exploitation in our current system, and want to make sure that no one is ever able to amass that much private wealth and productive property ever again. If the Distributists can find a way to ensure this condition is met, I’ll drop the s-word. In the meantime, let’s work together on projects of mutual benefit and find ways to cooperate politically whenever possible.

      • Malcolm Schluenderfritz

        Well, Philip, I wouldn’t accept that there is only “one way” out from capitalism. For one thing, I think that capitalism is on the way out itself; it seems to be self-destructing. For another thing, it is hard to prove a universal negative, particularly about a future event.

        And I’m not sure that a primary focus for Christians should be preventing others from behaving in an anti-social fashion. In any case, that didn’t seem to be Christ’s main concern. That, of course, is a primary difference between the two of us; you’re focused on how to reform or replace the current order, I’m interested in how to live as a Christian even under this order, with the hope that a different way of life could gain traction and gradually replace the mainstream way.

        And if that’s not practical . . . well, neither is sending a dozen peasants from Gallilee to convert the world! We Christians are not terribly “practical” people . . . but we seem to get a lot done anyway. In fact, we seem to get things done that more practical people with more practical projects never manage to accomplish.

        (It might be worth noting here that practical successes of socialism on the ground are almost as few and far between as practical successes of distributism!)

        Edited to add: I want to be very clear that I agree with Philip that the Christian should strive to protect the weak and the vulnerable. At the same time, how one does this is a prudential question that can change with the changing times. At the present time, I think we are in an “Early Church moment” with regard to temporal, worldly power, and that the best way to help the oppressed is by building voluntary, globally interconnected local communities that model a different economic way of life while reaching out directly to help the poor and oppressed, in the tradition of the anabaptists or the Catholic Worker. Ideally, such a network of communities of mutual aid could grow to replace the current order, simply by being more attractive, much as the Early Church grew without the aid of broader social trends or political power.

  • Zeb

    I want to be sure we’re discussing differences of opinion on substance and not just terminology. While I am very skeptical of attempts to say “what most people mean by the word ‘socialism’ is not actually socialism, and a lot of things that self described socialists reject are actually socialism,” ultimately if anyone wants to say my distributism is really a kind of socialism I’ll say fine; then it is the good and right kind of socialism that is importantly different from all the bad and wrong kinds of socialism. Likewise if anyone wants to say it is a kind of capitalism. At that point we’re talking about branding and whether we want to be associated with this or that historical and social group. That’s a valid consideration but we should be clear when we’re discussing that branding rather than the nature of a just society.

    My own little simplistic set of definitions is: Capitalism means the owners of capital own production itself. Socialism means society as a whole owns production as a whole. Distributism means the producers own their production. By “own production” I mean “has power of control over the productive process and has title to the results of production.” And so Malcolm when you say “I think a healthy local economy would be one in which a “determining number” of workers owned their own “means of production,” that does make you a distributist in my view. Philip when you say “socialism is fought for and won *by workers* and run *by workers*” and in the podcast “socialism is a system in which workers own the means of production,” I question whether you mean that literally and simply? If so I would call you a distributist, not a socialist; but if we really do agree on the substance and just use different terminology then we’re allies appealing to different audiences. However I wonder, do you really mean under socialism no one other than the worker has ownership of the means of his production? Is an agrarian society of yeoman farmers, cottage industries and mom and pop shops really socialism in your view? Most socialists hold the abolition of private property and collective ownership by all citizens, not just workers, as essential to socialism, and I see little use in considering direct private ownership by particular workers as being of the same genus as those more conventional socialisms.

    As for the way out of capitalism, I think socialism and distributism have the same options – democratic action from below in the form of reform, revolution, or building parallel polities. I don’t think socialism has exclusive claim on those modes; they were also the  modes of bourgeois revolution in the 18th and 19th and of Christian Democratic and Social Democratic reform in the 20th century. As for what policies might be used to effect distributist goals, that’s a huge area of study but what would separate distributism from socialism is that distributism would ensure through legal structures and distributive policies that a “determining number of workers owned their own means of production,” and that size of political and productive corporations is kept small enough that such ownership allows each person effective power over his community and his work.
    Malcolm I think your Anabaptist allergy to the state is where I disagree with you most. The state is just organized social power, and it is the only alternative to corrosive libertarianism which devolves into disorganized social power. I am with you in skepticism nearly to the point of total renunciation of “the government” if that means the contemporary liberal nation state, but justice requires governance even at the lowest level. I think an absolutely voluntarist communitarianism has the same problems as libertarian distributism, which is that it doesn’t take seriously enough the opposition and so will inevitably succumb to it.

    Philip I don’t know what you think is the actual way out of capitalism here and now for a Christian socialist, but I think we’re all in the same boat that Malcolm identifies when it comes to “what is to be done.” One of the branding benefits of distributism in my view is it keeps one from getting drawn into supporting the monopolist capitalism of the libertarian right or the technocratic bureaucracy of the social democratic left. It turns our attention to a scale where we can actually do something. I look at my favorite exemplars, the Bruderhof, (who actually are communists within their communities) but who realized that their communities need to split when they get much above 250 members because size *is* part of the social/political form. They have a strongly enforced structure of social authority that maintains justice as they see it, though of course being pacifists the only punishment is exile. They do great work in community outreach and relief both in their immediate locales and in places of particular need like natural disaster sites. Communities like theirs are what I see as the way to enact justice for we few who are committed to a holistic Christian sense of a just society, and on that level I think it is easy enough for us all to cooperate no matter what “ism” we label ourselves with.

    • Malcolm Schluenderfritz

      Thanks for the comment Zeb! I think my “anabaptist” stance toward the state is more prudential and relative to our current situation than anything. It might be telling that Anabaptism developed right around the same time that the modern nation state was developing. I agree that every society needs governance and leadership, but that governance has to be properly integrated with society, not seen as distinct from it, as our current governments tend to be seen.

      I think our disagreement is largely about words. I think Philip has a more substantial disagreement, but we’ll have to see if he wants to clarify that.

      From my point of view, one thing which differentiates non-libertarian distributists and democratic socialists is the kind of technology they prefer. The higher-tech a society is, the more “socialism” seems like an answer. A society has to be far more cautious about what individuals or groups are doing with large, powerful pieces of technology. Even if a large factory is owned by a cooperative of workers, somebody is going to be calling the shots, and that person might not have the interests of the wider society in mind. High-tech “means of production” can do a lot more damage to society than low-tech “means of production,” so more social control seems called for.

      I think your definitions are fairly good, but they overlook the fact that most societies are mixed; that’s where Belloc’s determining number comes in.

      With that said, I do think that in one sense society (not “the government”) does have a valid claim to a certain kind of shared ownership over the means of production. Ownership is a slippery concept; I see it as a bundle of rights (and corresponding duties) giving control over a particular object to an individual or individuals. Even if I own my backyard, I don’t have complete control over it; my neighbors won’t let me do various things with it; I can’t launch rockets or set the brush on fire or build a nuclear reactor or even play my radio really loud all night. So they (the community) has some “control” and therefore some “ownership” over my backyard. Even the most ardent libertarian probably does not want his neighbor storing TNT in a backyard shed; that’s where libertarianism breaks down.

      The most fundamental “means of production” is the land, and a community obviously has an interest in keeping an individual from buying up all the land and strip-mining it; in other words, a healthy society will have restrictions on the sale and destruction of productive property. If I can’t destroy a thing, or sell it to whomever I want, do I really “own” it? Or am I a co-owner or tenant on the community’s land? Different societies have worked this out in different ways; the most healthy seem to be ones where private “ownership” is balanced against community “ownership.”

      Further, the distributist holds that access to productive property is a right; families need to have access to the land and capital that will make their labor productive. Society (and particularly the subset of society known as “government”) exists to defend rights and enforce duties. All rights come with corresponding duties; if I, Malcolm, have a right to ownership of productive property, it must mean that in a sense nobody has a full, complete right of ownership over productive property. If they did have such a right, they could own it all, to the exclusion of all the other people with a right to have some.

      Further, in one sense private ownership is secondary to communal ownership; without a community to “back up” property rights, there are no such. I could declare that I own my neighbor’s yard, but society will very quickly intervene to straighten out the situation . . . or not, if society decides to award me “squatter’s rights.” If society does not have, in some sense, a claim to own property (particularly land) in its “territory” how could society arbitrate such matters?

      As a practical matter, I think that “private ownership” of farmland is best, but “communal ownership” of forests, mineral rights, fishing rights, and water seems to be healthier. It is obviously a bad idea for an individual or group of individuals to control the critical water resources of a community.

      And all this is without getting into the Thomistic principle of the universal destination of human goods.

      Now, is all this “socialist?” Well, I’d guess that most American conservatives would think so! And even many distributists seem to miss these points, since they’ve often imbibed a certain amount of American individualism/libertarianism. We’re so keen on rights, and so shy of duties, that such claims seem drastic, whereas they are very common historically.

      There’s a lot more I could say, but I’ll close this comment by agreeing that whatever our opinions on ideal social orders, we can all work together to build local Christian communities that demonstrate a different way of life.

  • Rebecca B.

    Thank you gentlemen for you conversations on the podcast! (And for your discussion in the comments here)

    I would not consider myself a scholarly type, but y’all do a great job of keeping the conversation easy going enough for a simple
    home maker without allowing the material to suffer.

    Malcolm, your short discussion on the “backyard garden party” has actually given me some motivation to make sure more people in my community have their own backyard garden. I’ve already helped one friend start a garden and I encourage some others to grow their existing gardens, but there are many others that need to be fed!

    After reading the comments here you had with Zeb, I would love to hear him come on to discuss distributism! I have actually never heard of such a thing.
    I, too, agree with him that y’all seem to be getting too hung up in the technicalities of the phrasing. The podcast could have been way more rich if you focused on the ideas and less on the words. Though, clarifications between totalitarian socialism and democratic socialism are still a necessity to the discussion.

    Malcom I completely agree with your statement (in the comments): “I think the substitution of ‘the government’ for ‘society’ is a problem.”
    That is the exact reason hearing the word socialism makes me cringe. Not that socialism viewed through the Church is bad- but socialism as most Americans know it via our absurd politics and media is exactly that… the substitution of the government for society. I guess in this way I have been a ‘religious socialist’ but not a ‘political or economic socialist’.
    If you would be willing, I’d love to hear a podcast diving deeper into this idea of government substituting society. Your podcast is doing wonders for getting me to think more deeply on ideas I have skimmed over before and thus solidifying the ideas into convictions (like not purchasing sweat shop clothing…) and I feel like discussing where our society is lacking, thus encouraging government to fill in would help push me along to be an even greater neighbor and of course a greater Christian.

    With all this talk of the ideal economic system and how to pull us out of our current misery, I can’t help but remain pessimistic. I’m a firm believer that we are a fallen, broken people and that it will take a great act of God to change our society and economic systems for the better.
    Now, God acts through the saints (often the least expected people) and we very well could become those very saints. Pessimistic I may be, but I’m still a strong believer in taking action within our communities where we can.
    And maybe there is another podcast idea: what can we do in our own communities to help develop a more just economic system? It of course won’t over ride the current global system.. but a just global system will never be adopted if people are not already implementing it on the grassroots level somewhere.

    Maybe, just maybe, one of us will be the saint to bring about such global change.

    • Malcolm Schluenderfritz

      Hello Rebecca, thanks for the comment! We hope to have an episode on Distributism up in the next few months. And while I enjoy debating technical matters for the “clarification of thought” as Peter Maurin would say, I agree with you that technicalities can get in the way of practical action. Have you seen our list of “101 things you can do right now?” It hasn’t actually got to 101 things yet, and we’re eager for suggestions from listeners. I think you might also like our newest podcast, where we interview a local intentional community about the practical steps they have taken. We’ll be covering more practical topics in upcoming episodes.

      Not only do we have a problem with the government replacing society, we also have a problem that when we say “government” we automatically think “Washington D.C.” I’m pretty sure we’ll never get particularly positive outcomes from the folks in D.C.; in fact, I think national level politics are largely a circus designed to keep us distracted and divided. Local politics is a better bet for reintegrating government and society, I think.

      Your point about the government stepping into a void created by the breakdown of society is a good one. Some conservatives rail against welfare, but they avoid the bigger picture: our society has broken down to the point where massive welfare is necessary. For instance, if elderly people were taken care of by their families and local communities, social security would be unnecessary. Nobody is stopping us from rebuilding the extended family if we want to!

      And I’d agree with your assessment that due to our fallen nature, a society-wide change for the better is impossible without the grace of God. I think that’s one of the main points I disagree with Philip on. I’m far less optimistic than he is about the possibilities of secular politics. History is full of examples of oppression, violence, and injustice; better social orders arise on occasion, but are quickly subverted, or exist side by side with gross injustice. (For instance, the early American commitment to freedom for all existed side by side with slavery and genocide against native tribes.)

      In our particular situation, we face another problem. Political action at any level is only as good as its ends or goals, and we Americans currently don’t have a shared concept of the common good; so our politics has become merely the use of force to defeat our opponents. Once dialogue is impossible due to the lack of a shared vocabulary, violence quickly follows.

      Let’s all pray that God intervenes to heal our society . . . and be open to becoming, at least in a small way, the answer to those prayers!

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