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Labour’s Blues #2 – Catholic doctrine and defence of the existing social order

BlueLabourCoverIn Labour’s Blues – anti-secular, anti-rational, more radical conservative than socialist?, I pointed out that the recent book Blue Labour – Forging a New Politics is marked by an anti-secular and anti-rationalist theme running throughout its pages. Further, it claims great importance for religious insights in general and of Catholic Social Thought (CST) in particular as a source of its ideas. Now I want to look a little closer at CST.

Given the limited space I will focus on a key Papal encyclical: Rerum Novarum by Pope Leo XIII (1891). The reason for considering this document from the end of the 19th century is because it is central to CST. It is specifically mentioned four times in Blue Labour and it has been celebrated in a series of subsequent Catholic Encyclicals right up to and including Caritas in Veritate by Benedict XVI in 2009. Its centenary was celebrated by Pope Pope John Paul II in his Centesimus Annus of 1991. What is more Jon Cruddas has made a point in previous work of claiming that Labour could learn much from “19th century Catholic social thought”. The choice is therefore not arbitrary.

Rerum Novarum has been referred to as a papal denunciation of the exploitation of workers and as such the basis for a critical view of capitalism. Its subtitle is “The rights and duties of Capital and Labour”.

The document opens with an expression of concern about “the spirit of revolutionary change, which has long been disturbing the nations of the world”. It notes “the enormous fortunes of some few individuals, and the utter poverty of the masses”. Poverty is said to be a pressing issue “that some opportune remedy must be found quickly for the misery and wretchedness pressing so unjustly on the majority of the working class”.

Given the great wealth accumulated by the Catholic church during centuries when the great mass of people lived in poverty one might wonder what prompted the sense of urgency. The answer is not far to seek: “the danger lies in this, that crafty agitators are intent on making use of these differences of opinion to pervert men’s judgements and to stir up the people to revolt.

More specifically “the socialists, working on the poor man’s envy of the rich, are striving to do away with private property, and contend that individual possessions should become the common property of all, to be administered by the State or by municipal bodies.

What ensues is a long defence of private property as an expression of our God-given human nature. This is accompanied by repeated denunciations of socialism as a false, anti-human doctrine. The arguments are too well known to anyone familiar with low-level denunciations of socialism to be worth repeating. One may wonder, though, why the authors of Blue Labour at no point discuss this aspect of CST.

Socialism, the Leo XIII tells us, is “manifestly against justice. For, every man has by nature the right to possess property as his own. This is one of the chief points of distinction between man and the animal creation” and so on. Some may have more property than others but this also is in the natural order of things. “the limits of private possession have been left to be fixed by man’s own industry, and by the laws of individual races”. Again and again the papal reasoning finds yet further proofs that “private ownership is in accordance with the law of nature.” There is no consideration of the scale of this property (e.g. vast landed estates or whole industries), it is private property in general that is defended and therefore all private property. We are told:

It is a most sacred law of nature that a father should provide food and all necessaries for those whom he has begotten; and, similarly, it is natural that he should wish that his children, who carry on, so to speak, and continue his personality … Now in no other way can a father effect this except by the ownership of productive property, which he can transmit to his children by inheritance…. Hence, it is clear that the main tenet of socialism, community of goods, must be utterly rejected.”

For good measure we are told that the father is the natural head of the family and that “a woman is by nature fitted for home-work, and it is that which is best adapted at once to preserve her modesty and to promote the good bringing up of children and the well-being of the family.”

The concern for the poor and the exploitation of the workers is entirely in the context of maintaining social harmony and protecting private property i.e. on the basis of a defence of the status quo and on the view that there is no inherent conflict of interest between capital and labour. By the time the encyclical was written the rise of working class agitation and of socialist parties was causing defenders of the status quo to consider how best to defend the world of private property. There was nothing novel in the papal thoughts. Similar things were being argued around Europe of which Disraeli’s one-nationism is an example: the worst of the workers’ suffering should be alleviated so that they, in turn, can show their gratitude by respecting the right to rule of their natural superiors.

Rerum Novarum references another encyclical: On the Christian Constitution of States (1885). This document verges on the Talibanesque in its concern that all social and governmental institutions should have a religious basis. Thus we are warned against those “who have tried to work out a plan of civil society based on doctrines other than those approved of by the Catholic Church”. It continues:

“All public power must proceed from God. For God alone is the true and supreme Lord of the world.”

To despise legitimate authority, in whomsoever vested, is unlawful, as a rebellion against the Divine will, and whoever resists that, rushes wilfully to destruction.”

All who rule, therefore, should hold in honour the holy Name of God, and one of their chief duties must be to favour religion, to protect it, to shield it under the credit and sanction of the laws …”.

The document deals with the split between the civil and religious authority in order to argue that there must be no interference in the affair of the Church and that both together are like the body and the soul and both sanctioned by God with the Church being in a position to advise the state and not the other way round.

In the 1991 encyclical Centesimus Annus celebrating the centenary of Rerum Novarum John Paul II reaffirmed its essential teachings while trying to tone down some of its more outrageous claims. Gone is the heavy theological justification of private property and the right to own it is more qualified. By the end of the 20th century the rise of modernisation and the spread of liberal views were such that it was no longer possible to speak like Leo XIII and expect to be taken seriously. But the same old injunctions against basic social change and the same call for social harmony within the existing order remain.

… the great clarity in perceiving, in all its harshness, the actual condition of the working class — men, women and children; … [and] clarity in recognizing the evil of a solution which, by appearing to reverse the positions of the poor and the rich, was in reality detrimental to the very people whom it was meant to help. The remedy would prove worse than the sickness. By defining the nature of the socialism of his day as the suppression of private property, Leo XIII arrived at the crux of the problem. …

… we have to add that the fundamental error of socialism is anthropological in nature. Socialism considers the individual person simply as an element, a molecule within the social organism, so that the good of the individual is completely subordinated to the functioning of the socio-economic mechanism. Socialism likewise maintains that the good of the individual can be realized without reference to his free choice, to the unique and exclusive responsibility which he exercises in the face of good or evil. Man is thus reduced to a series of social relationships, and the concept of the person as the autonomous subject of moral decision disappears, the very subject whose decisions build the social order.

One is left to wonder just how Jon Cruddas, Maurice Glasman and Arnie Graf have convinced themselves that this material provides us with a basis for a new stage of Labour policy. But on a closer view it is not so difficult to understand. Arnie Graf explains his view:

Picture a three-legged stool. If all three legs are sturdy, you can sit on the stool with no worries; however, if one of the legs is weak, the stool will collapse. If one leg represents the market sector and one leg of the stool represents the state, unless the third leg of the stool, which represents the civic sector and its voluntary institutions and organisations, is strong the stool will collapse”.

According to this approach, all the institutions and mechanisms of current society are as necessary as the legs of the stool. We just have to make them work in conjunction/harmony with each other. But don’t try to fundamentally re-design the stool or worse replace it with something else to sit on because if you do you will end up on your arse.

Despite the absurdity of the proposal to base Labour policy on CST and of the heavy religious bias of Blue Labour the book raises some real issues which require a response. In a third and final article I will try to indicate the basis for a general critique of Blue Labour at the same time as highlighting some of the issues requiring further discussion.


  1. Barry Ewart says:

    Interesting part 2. Perhaps we who really create the wealth and make societies work can design our own stools for ourselves. And perhaps we the democratic left need to do this with, and not for. A thought was constantly running through my head with these pieces – we are good people, we are driven by addressing poverty, homelessness and care etc. etc. and I think it was a quote from I think Micheal Manley, “Socialism is love.”


    When I was reading this I instinctively felt my stomach burning. Being a socialist deep down, it made me feel sick. I honestly cannot see much difference between the doctrine descibed above and full blown Thatcherism, Nazism master race or even the superiority of the daleks.
    Labourism does not seek to make everyone equal, that is impossible. We all have different abilities, qualities and talents.
    What Labourism does seek is aptly described in the “Ragged trousered philanthropists.”
    Labourism, as described here, and by Clement Attlee, wants t make sure that we ALL HAVE EQUAL ACCESS TO THE BENEFITS OF CIVILISATION. This is the fundamental law of Labourism, that no one is undeserving by background, disability, or any other lack.
    That means making health, education, jobs, the arts etc available to all.
    Property ownership by the few at the expense of the many is the polar opposite of this. Whether you pay a mortgage or rent is irrelevant so long as you have affordable access.
    The above doctrine is just hypocrisy, or a cloak for capitulation to the rich.

    1. David Ellis says:

      Labourism is opportunism.

    2. Robert says:

      Then you hear labour speak about … Labour is the party of workers it’s in the name, Miliband yesterday labour is the party of working people.

      Reeves labour is the party of workers not, well one would have thought shirkers, but what she then said was not welfare or those on benefits, Reeves Miliband and a few others are Blue labour, Miliband will state he not religious but he would be if it won him an election.

      But reeves counted out all those on welfare which is the majority of the low paid who are in work.

      I was told to read between the lines, but what I see between the lines is a Progress party waiting to make a move.

  3. Chris says:

    There’s a lot to be said for Catholic social teaching. While obviously inferior to, say, Bevanism, it’s certainly better than pretty much anything the left comes out with now.

    1. J.P. Craig-Weston says:

      Not really:

      Apart from how comfortable RC have allays been with political fascism, (not just Franco and Hitler,) look at how the Irish orphanages have been run even in recent times, and the smell of burning heretics still hangs heavy over everything they do and say.

      1. Robert says:

        Your both of course correct except the left within labour are a handful of politician if you want to see how left leaning MP labour has google it, it’s fourteen in total.

        The whoile front bench is mainly to the right and most are Progress members or ex chairs.

        I do think Blue labour which see some conservatism as being good, but does not say much about socialism.

        Labour is now returning as Blair stated to the center to be a centrist government if it can win, then of course it’s only one step away center ight.

        I wonder if the Catholics are worried about the rise in the Muslim faith in the UK, so are looking at Governments to push their religion forward, if they do then if labour picks this up it will be a major error.

      2. John.P reid says:

        I hope you weren’t saying that Blue labour socially conservative view, that reflected the view of labour from 1950-1970′, and is supported by many Catholics in labour, isany way similar to the wy the Catholic Church from the Vatican to France too Ireland all turned a blind eye to the third reich

        1. J.P. Craig-Weston says:

          The Roman Catholic Church didn’t so much turn a blind eye to National Socialism in Germany as it embraced it, (on the whole,) and it been noted dryly by more than one historian, that the newly formed Jesuits who came over to Brittan secretly in reign of Elizabeth I were not sent to preach to and succor the poor, but only ever to the wealthy and prosperous Roman Catholic households.

          1. John.P reid says:

            And France,and Opus Dai, and it was also used before the war in Germany by hitler, the Nazis having marching in gods orders on their belt buckles

  4. Andy Newman says:

    I have no idea why David Pavett is pursuing this divisive and frankly jejune critique of the Church’s social thought.

    I will reply when I have more time.

    1. David Pavett says:

      Let me explain.

      Suppose that someone says repeatedly that the ideas of X are ones Labour should use as a basis for its approach. I then turn to X and find the ideas quite contrary to what I believe and what I know many other Labour members believe then I will reply that they are mistaken and will justify my objection by quoting the views of X to which I take exception.

      I call that normal debate. You call it “divisive” and “jejune”.

      I look forward to your defence of the Papal ideas which I have questioned.

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