/ theory

The Incoherence of The Josias

Editors' Note: We are aware that the publication of the Tradinista Manifesto has been met with feedback both positive and negative, all of which we are grateful for. While we agree with the author that the criticisms responded to here rarely rise above the level of simple sophistry, this piece nevertheless serves to clarify a number of confusions about our project, and to introduce a number of concepts with which many readers might be unfamiliar. Even readers who are broadly sympathetic to our project, but unclear as to some of its theoretical underpinnings should find something of value in this response. For a model of charitable engagement with our project from a perspective skeptical, but similarly conversant in the tradition of Catholic social thought, we recommend this.

Those responsible for the recent publication of the Tradinista Manifesto have long looked with respect at The Josias and the works published there. Groups dedicated to the recovery of an integrally Christian political thought are few, and should be allies; commitment to an identical end should underwrite discussion of a diversity of means.

But The Josias has chosen rather to publish a lengthy criticism that poses as a “close reading” of the Manifesto but amounts to little more than an expression of confusion, ignorance, and distaste. This is to be regretted – one might have expected a more intelligent reading from editors who have seen fit to publish trenchant critiques of the liberal order, and one might have hoped for a more charitable reading from editors whose stated goals are so close to those of the Manifesto.[1]

Indeed it is hard to avoid the implication that Elliot Milco, the author of the piece, is more confused than offended by the Manifesto – but it is no surprise that employment under a Trumpist masthead has left him with a defective understanding of political argument. But since apart from Milco there are many Catholics of good will for whom socialism and the socialist tradition are alien and suspect, it’s worthwhile to provide additional context on some of the main themes of the Manifesto.

In the following I do not respond to Milco point-by-point – many of his complaints are repetitious, some are too tendentious to merit response, and a few are concerned only with points of style. It is instead for the reader of unhardened heart that I have undertaken to clear up some of the points on which Milco has claimed confusion.

I. The Two Ends of Man, The Two Goals of the Polity

The Tradinista Manifesto is first and most obviously a Christian project – it is, however, a Christian political project. But what does it mean for a political project to be Christian?

It cannot mean that one is attempting to develop a political order that would deliver supernatural beatitude, or by some political mechanism induce its citizens to become holy Christians. To propose this would be to deny the properly supernatural character of sanctification, which is accomplished only by God within the supernatural community of the Church.

Without pretending that a political order is ever adequate to promote holiness, we can nevertheless see that some ways of life throw up obstacles to religious practice and the cultivation of the virtues – from the most obvious cases of laws prohibiting public worship, to more subtle cases in which the structure of a political order can promote pleonexy, lust, and strife between different parts of the political community. In no case are these obstacles ever insuperable – the power of God is greater than any human law, and many saints have become holy despite every kind of worldly obstacle. But we regard their sanctification as the greater miracle because of the greater difficulty (humanly speaking) of its accomplishment; this gives us no reason to desire that others should similarly struggle. In a family, and in a school, all would agree that certain politics and arrangements can support the transmission of the faith and provide circumstances of grace – we believe the same is true about the arrangement of political society.

It should not be imagined, though, that in discussing the final end of man, the Manifesto presumes that its program of revolution or reform is adequate to bring man to that supernatural end. That remains the work of the Church; politics can clear the way for this, but cannot accomplish it.

The main goals of the Manifesto are goals of this world: to identify the characteristics of a better and more just political order. Such a just order will obviously promote the goods of religion, but in the saeculum where we dwell, the common good is not exhausted by the goods of religion. It includes also goods of production, of distribution, of discipline, and of natural virtue – goods that every community must manage or fail to manage well. There is nothing properly supernatural about these goods, and no reason why unbelievers of good will cannot endorse them along with us.

We who are Christian would never propose to work towards these natural goods without praying for God’s support, nor would we shy away from the imperative to evangelize. But while we are discussing politics, we should avoid the temptation to imagine that worldly goods and worldly arrangements are simply irrelevant in the light of the Gospel. Milco succumbs to this temptation, as when he argues:

Given that justice has been described above as giving to each person whatever best facilitates their sanctification, it’s unclear what the authors mean by economic injustices. Christ says over and over in the gospel that poverty is the best way to salvation.

No one would deny that suffering can serve as a discipline in holiness – but no one, surely, would argue that one therefore ought to work politically to promote privation and pain in society, or to block attempts to alleviate those ills. The Manifesto proceeds in the confidence that it is never (or almost never) necessary to choose between healing men’s bodies and their souls.

It is not, as Milco imagines, that the Manifesto proposes the creation of a society that makes virtue easy or that makes irrelevant the supernatural work of sanctification – even on the purely natural plane, there is no political arrangement that can eradicate personal vice and guarantee human happiness. The experience of history and the doctrine of original sin put any such hope out of reach. Still we insist that, even if a flawless regime is impossible, it is not a waste of time to discuss what regimes are better or worse.

II. Justice, Structures, and Institutions

Several times in the course of Milco’s animadversions, he objects to the Manifesto’s discussion of social and economic institutions – it is wrong, he claims, to speak of classes, of markets, etc. as really existing structures, when they exist only through the choices of individual actors.

The focus on institutions from the start is disconcerting. The primary meaning of justice is in the relations between persons: between the rich and the poor, the laborer and the employer, husband and wife, parent and child, ruler and subject, God and man. Whither this talk of “institutions”?
One of the pitfalls of our day is the perpetual focus on the moral responsibility of “structures” and “institutions” to the neglect of individual moral responsibility and initiative. As we proceed, note that the manifesto speaks endlessly of vague economic classes, non-existent and undescribed institutions, and above all “the Polity”, which means some combination of “everyone in society” and “the government”. What all this means for the behavior of individual people is left unexplored.

This is little more than vulgar Thatcherism, or the more American reactionary emphasis on “personal responsibility” – a familiar objection to any kind of social theory that moves beyond the cult of liberal autonomy.

It is of course true that people and institutions exist in different ways: it’s even true that most social institutions have no existence outside of the individual acts that reconfirm and reconstitute them daily. But to imagine that this obviates talk of institutions is like imagining that one might understand a tree with reference to nothing but cell biology – it is to impose on oneself a strict obligation to miss the point.

Human acts and decisions do not exist in a vacuum, but are shaped by habits, by cultural patterns, by norms both correct and vicious, both explicitly and tacitly enforced. One is not obliged to imagine these as objects in their own right to understand their usefulness as tools for understanding the operations of society. To speak of “capitalism” is no different in this sense than to speak of a “culture of death” or a “dictatorship of relativism.” Needless to say there are material arrangements that correspond to capitalism, just as the culture of death more broadly has certain institutional accoutrements – but none of these will have any power if a polity shucks off the mindset that makes it yield to them.

III. What is a polity?

There is nothing in the least anarchistic about the positions in the Manifesto. Following Aristotle, St. Thomas Aquinas, and the perennial wisdom of the Church, its positions embrace the importance of good government. But it is difficult to discuss questions of government and society without adopting liberal concepts by default. This should be no surprise, since liberalism has shaped almost all political discourse of the present age. This is why the Manifesto in some places has chosen to use the word “polity.”

In using this word, the Manifesto attempts to engage with a broader tradition of classical political discourse, exemplified in Aristotle and St. Thomas, that owes nothing to modern liberal understandings. In this usage, “polity” is meant to cover the same conceptual range as “civitas” or “πόλις” in the source texts. Indeed it is somewhat surprising that a writer for The Josias, a website committed to reviving that classical political tradition, should be so confused here – but the meaning of the term can easily enough be approximated for moderns as something like “political community.” What the Manifesto wishes to capture by this is the holism required for a complete discussion of political life – we need a term that includes explicit state structures, the people themselves and their common good, and the various customs and written and unwritten laws that shape their life together. We are governed by much more than our “government.”

The most primitive Amazonian tribe that lacks all state structures and formal statutes is nevertheless a “polity,” by virtue of their common life and the principles by which they pattern it. Likewise, even in countries with massive and assertive state institutions, much that is properly political goes on “beneath the radar.” The use of the rare word “polity” in the Manifesto is an attempt to make clear how this richer concept of the political differs from that which is vulgarly used.

An advantage of this usage is to clarify that the political theory of the Manifesto is not limited to the activities of “governments.” This is true quantitatively: there are polities smaller than modern nation-states (whether nation-states explicitly acknowledge them or no), and there is a polity larger than all nation-states: the political community of the human race, in which we can be said to participate in a single common good of all mankind. It is also true qualitatively: there are activities that order our common life that liberal society nevertheless considers to be “civic” (as opposed to “political”), or “in the private sphere.” To talk about the full richness of political life, we need a term that does not exclude these.

This understanding of the polity means that when the Manifesto discusses “decentralization” or “subsidiarity,” it is engaging with this implicit vision of polities that form concentric circles, in which the larger polities include goods that are greater and common to more, and the smaller circles include specific local goods and the goods of communities of intermediary size. The “decentralization” proposed in the Manifesto is nothing more than giving these lower-level communities responsibility for their proper goods – as there are higher goods beyond any local community, so also are higher authorities with a greater jurisdiction required. And since all of the human race participates in a single common good, individual nation-states cannot be the final arbiters of all policies touching on that common good that is greater than any nation.

The Manifesto’s critique of the nation-state, then, is not that nation-states are too bureaucratic or even that they tend to foment dangerous nationalist sentiments – though both of these critiques may also be true. Rather, the Manifesto opposes a vision of political authority that takes the nation-state as paradigm, and therefore ignores the political goods that are both higher or lower than it. In questions of properly local scope, the principle of subsidiarity requires that nation-states allow local communities to speak. And in questions of properly global scope, coördination at a level higher than the nation state is the only possible strategy (the Manifesto discusses climate change as the paradigm example of such a global problem; others could be added).

IV. Class Struggle

When Milco (and most other early critics of the Manifesto) turn to the parts of the document that discuss class struggle, nothing is more apparent than a failure to understand the language it uses. To take one example: Milco and many others have assumed that its use of the word “class” is such that the clergy and laity can be considered as different, perhaps opposed, social classes. We see also in Milco’s supposed criticisms a complete confusion between the concept of “workers’ collectives” and a supposed (and feared) dictatorship of the proletariat – a distinction easily enough resolved in the minds of those who read Leftist texts with charity. It is possible that for Catholics who have by a kind of ideological chastity prevented themselves from reading Marxist texts, terms like “capitalist society,” “class,” “exploitation,” etc., might remain opaque. A full explication and defense of the Manifesto directed at such an audience would do well to include definitions and historical illustrations of each of these Marxist concepts.

But if the use of such terms, common and uncontroversial within Left discourse, has confused Catholic readers, this is a fault not in the Manifesto’s text but in its critics’ understanding – a fault which the authors of the manifesto should remedy not through apology but through education.

The Catholic critic who reads Wood on The Origin of Capitalism¸ who reads Polanyi on The Great Transformation, who indeed goes so far as to hold his nose and read Part I of Capital, or to listen to some of Harvey’s lectures, will read the Manifesto with much less confusion.[1:1]

When he moves beyond objections about the definition of “class struggle,” Milco is right to ask whether this opposition may extend so far as to include opposition by force. Here the Manifesto neither commits itself to a revolutionary position nor forecloses that possibility. This is wise; questions of just war are always questions of prudential reason, and it is not possible to give a general answer. It is enough, I hope, to observe that the Manifesto’s expressed preference for unbloody reform should be taken as its genuine position.

V. The persistence of labor and property

“He who does not work, neither shall he eat.” In using this line against the Manifesto Milco puts himself in the tradition of those many who have imagined an apodictic Apostolic anathematization of Left politics; he also demonstrates how little he understands the philosophy embedded in the Manifesto.

Neither the Tradinista Collective nor any other Leftist thinkers imagine that human welfare might be decoupled from human labor. Indeed, in their relentless emphasis on the importance of the common worker, Leftists tend to emphasize just how essential work is to the maintenance and flourishing of society. Leftists do not differ from apologists of capital by devaluing labor – they differ in their view of how labor should be politically governed.

One of the basic insights of the Left, to which the Manifesto is much indebted, is that the absence or near-invisibility of explicit physical coercion does not therefore make the market an arena of authentic human freedom. The Manifesto’s authors take for granted that in labor relations, in debts, and in interactions with the agents of state power, a liberal illusion of free and equal treatment under the law often hides instances of oppression and corruption – instances which liberals can endorse only because their worldview allows them to be overlooked. Once however they are not overlooked, the formal or legal distinction of free and unfree labor becomes only one important distinction among many. To rely solely on that distinction, to “outsource” decisions about the relations of workers to the market, seems to the authors of the Manifesto to be a kind of ethical abdication – a fine illustration of the weakness of moral philosophy in our times.

Just as labor will continue to exist in a socialist world, so also will property. Because just as the Manifesto encourages us to distinguish between just and unjust forms of labor, it encourages us implicitly also to distinguish among different types of personal and productive property. So the Manifesto is in no way opposed to the teaching of the popes and doctors about the close relation between personal property and human dignity; it does not however conclude that such arguments are defenses also of all the forms of property that are legally constituted within a capitalist order. A less unjust economic order would not take the shirt off your back or the roof from over your head – it may however put restrictions on what private citizens might do with their equity shares.

VI. Sexual morality

The Manifesto could not be more clear:

We uphold the value of the indissoluble marriage of one man and one woman, ordered towards the generation of offspring, which is the foundation of society. Accordingly the polity should take supporting the education and rearing of children as a primary responsibility. Few things are more hostile to the poor among us than the bourgeois conception of marriage and family life, in which marriage becomes a mere contract or means to self-gratification. We therefore reject contraception, no-fault divorce, in-vitro fertilization, and any similar attempt to sever marriage from procreation or interfere with its indissolubility (§12).

And yet Milco, and many other critics of the Manifesto, find themselves unable to believe that this passage is meant in good faith, or is consistent with the whole of the document. Milco goes so far as to speculate different authors including paragraphs that are at odds with each other – supposing imaginary schisms among the Tradinista Collective in order to be able to claim that those parts not explicitly committed to Christian teaching on sexual morals are implicitly opposed to it. This is wrong as a matter of fact, but it’s also a failure of charity: rather than endorse any part of the text, its critics must assume that the parts they agree with are included only ironically or in bad faith.

This is a failure of charity in interpretation. But when pushed to justify their objections with something other than spleen, these critics tend to fixate on certain words: the manifesto condemns “homophobia”; it denounces “transphobia.” Do not these shibboleths of the social justice warriors make clear that the Manifesto is opposed to the mind of the church?

Here indeed the Manifesto is vulnerable to misinterpretation – though the apostles of libertinism have not been confused, and have discerned in the Manifesto a document that is openly and clearly hostile to their aims. The Manifesto does not plead for gay marriage, or for the suppression of traditional moral rules, or for the consensus emergent in many parts of the Left that reduces sex to a matter of individual will and medical technique.

But the Manifesto does take a clear stance against the abuse of homosexual and trans persons, not indeed as a way of abandoning Christian morals, but as a recognition that the damage inflicted on people by disordered sexual and gender identities is not healed by adding to it additional harms of brutality and social exclusion. The Church must be a hospital for sinners, and secular society outside the church must also be a place for the cultivation of virtue. But a Church that writes people off as irremediably and essentially wicked, that exiles and torments rather than preaches to them, is no less defective than would be a Church that capitulated to their errors. Milco himself has provided an example of this extreme, preferring to condemn those who expressed condolences to the victims of the Orlando nightclub massacre, rather than run the risk of providing the slightest comfort to the gay community – the Manifesto is less willing to purchase clarity at the price of monstrosity.

The Manifesto does not mean to deny that when interacting with those who have defined themselves according to disordered sexual ideologies, it is more difficult to convert the sinner than to exercise on him or her one’s wrath – but this more difficult work is a Christian duty we dare not decline.

Two additional notes:

In several places Milco complains that the full details of a plan for Catholic socialism have not been laid out. To lay out all details is not the role of a manifesto, but such discussions cannot be postponed forever. The Tradinista Collective will be certain to welcome any good-faith proposals.

Many of the arguments laid out in the Manifesto assume and build out a broader critique of liberalism: one that readers of The Josias can be expected to share. For that reason I have not expanded on it here – a task of the Tradinista Collective in future months will be to give a fuller description of what we mean by “liberalism,” and why we contend it is to be opposed.

  1. Eds. note: We heartily recommend that you do this. ↩︎ ↩︎