Acton Institute Powerblog

PBR: History Casts Doubt

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In response to the question, “What is wrong with socialism?”

I can hardly do better than Pope John Paul II, who wrote in Centesimus Annus, “the fundamental error of socialism is anthropological in nature,” because socialism maintains, “that the good of the individual can be realized without reference to his free choice.”

The socialist experiment is attractive because its model is the family, a situation in which each gives according to his ability and receives according to his need—and it works. Unfortunately, the dynamics of family life cannot be replicated at the level of society.

The contention that socialism is unsustainable because of its inherent misapprehension of human nature is supported by the historical record. To my recollection, socialism has only been successful to any significant degree and for any significant amount of time in one institution other than the family: consecrated religious life (e.g., monasteries). Needless to say, there are some rather peculiar dynamics involved there as well, which cannot be replicated across a society.

This lack of success is not for lack of trying. We’re all familiar with the grand national attempts in, for example, the Soviet Union. But socialism has failed on smaller scales as well: in the communes of Brook Farm, Massachusetts; Oneida, New York; and New Harmony, Indiana, to name just a few American instances.

Can a socialist experiment ever succeed? History casts doubt.

Kevin Schmiesing Kevin Schmiesing, Ph.D., is a research fellow for the research department at the Acton Institute. He is a frequent writer on Catholic social thought and economics, is the author of American Catholic Intellectuals, 1895-1955 (Edwin Mellen Press, 2002) and is most recently the author of Within the Market Strife: American Catholic Economic Thought from Rerum Novarum to Vatican II (Lexington Books, 2004). Dr. Schmiesing holds a Ph.D. in American history from the University of Pennsylvania, and a B.A. in history from Franciscan University ofSteubenville. Author of Within the Market Strife and American Catholic Intellectuals, 1895—1955 (2002), he serves as Book Review Editor for the Journal of Markets & Morality. He is also executive director of CatholicHistory.net.

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