Orestes Brownson on Socialism & the Church

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Orestes Augustus Brownson (1803 –1876) was among the most original and powerful intellects of his era. A self-taught child prodigy who had memorized most of the Bible by the age of 14, in youth he attached himself to the New England Transcendentalists and advocated a liberal and utopian socialism. Having outgrown his errors, at the age of 41 and after a meeting with the bishop of Boston, he became a Catholic, albeit a controversial one since his liberal heritage was difficult for him to shake off. His most famous book is The American Republic: Its Constitution, Tendencies and Destiny (1865). In 2016, Richard M. Reisch did the world an inestimable service by publishing selections from The American Republic and many of Brownson’s other writings in a 500-page volume titled Seeking the Truth: An Orestes Brownson Anthology.

Socialism and the Church

In 1849 Brownson published an article titled “Socialism and the Church” in which he reviewed a curious book recently published in England titled England the Civilizer, ‘By a Woman’. Brownson describes the anonymous author as having “a strong mind and a corrupt heart.” She takes Western Civilization to task since the fall of the Roman Empire, because ever since that time civilization has been ruined by superstitious religion and has been struggling to recover its sanity and prospects of building a decent world society. In the following passage Brownson summarizes the Woman’s book as a primer for socialism in the future, a socialism that finally did sweep through the world with horrible consequence in the 20th century, and may well be threatening more dire consequence in the 21st.

The old civilization, now effete, committed the capital error of recognizing religion – in the language of the author, – superstition, government, property, and “the ascendency of the male sex,” or family, – for the family cannot subsist without that ascendency; the new civilization will correct this error, and for religion substitute science; for government, federation; for law, instinct; for property, communal wealth; for family, love; and for the ascendency of the male sex, the administration of women. Consequently, the new civilization is to be a petticoat civilization in which we must include the human race in those genera which are named after the female, as cows, geese, ducks, hens, etc.

Brownson then cautions that the absurd wildness of the socialist’s dream must not be ignored or taken lightly. It was the very cavalier attitude of those who should have known better in France prior to the Revolution (“If we just ignore the rantings of the mobs, surely they will get tired of their rants and go home!”) that resulted in the bloodshed against the Throne and the Church. The revolutionaries were emboldened by the passivity of those who could not believe that the present political system required correction or it was doomed. For Brownson there needed to be a counter movement against the utopian socialists who were preparing the way for disasters yet to come and possibly far more deadly than the blades of the guillotine. But he remained concerned that the absurdity of utopian socialism would not be perceived as such by those who were under its seductive sway. (Fate would have its horrible way in the 20th century.)

The anonymous Woman author had made her case very clearly and leaped toward its deadly consequence. The achievement of political democracy would never be enough. Political equality being noble, it could never realize its fullest potential if not followed by pure and unadulterated economic and social equality. What Brownson could not know in his day was how perfectly the blueprint for modern socialism had been designed by the so-called progressives of his day. They had seen their role as messianic, and were duty bound to preach the Gospel of Progress to the spiritually unwashed and ignorant of the world. The socialists became righteous philosophers of the future into which they were to lead humanity. They only needed a philosophy, as one poetic pundit put it, “… that they may prove to these conservatives who are frightened almost out of their wits at the movement of the masses, and who are denouncing them in no measured terms, that these movements are from God, and that they who war against them are warring against truth, duty, God, and Humanity…. The friends of Progress need it (philosophy) that, having vindicated, legitimized progress, they may go into the saloons, the universities, the halls of legislation, the pulpit, and abroad among the people, and preach it, with the dignity and the authority of the prophet.”

Brownson advises us that socialism, like the devil, appears often in a Christian guise and even delights in quoting the Gospel, but distorts the truth and turns it upside down, such as pretending that Jesus was the first socialist. This is socialism’s worst vice, pretending that its doctrines flow from the mouth of God. The socialist preaches that religion and liberty are one and the same, “that all men are equal before God, and therefore equal to one another…. this is the Christian law. This law is violated whenever distinction of races is recognized; whenever one man is clothed with authority over his equals; whenever one man, or a number of men, are invested with privileges which are not shared equally by the whole. As this is the case everywhere, everywhere therefore is the Christian law violated. Everywhere therefore is their suffering, lamentation. The people everywhere groan and travail in pain, sighing to be delivered from their bondage into the glorious liberty of the sons of God. To this deliverance the people have a right. For it every Christian should contend; and they wrong their brethren, deny Christianity, and blaspheme God, who oppose it.”

Absolute Equality for All

For Brownson, this message of the social and economic equality of all was the essential defect of socialism, for equality in all things is clearly unnatural. Socialists boldly urge Christians to side with them as the only way to save Christianity; and, refusing to do so, they warn that, like falling dominoes in a row, Christianity’s doctrines will fail; will in fact disappear, because the people, seduced by the Gospel of Equality, and seeing the Church does not obey that gospel, will slowly withdraw their loyalty and transfer it to socialism, until the new Holy Trinity of Political, Social, and Economic Equality are finally enthroned and forever worshipped. This, Brownson notes, is precisely the error of the Jews in the time of Jesus. They expected not a spiritual Lord and Savior, but rather a temporal prince who would gratify all the carnal wants of Israel. Failing to see such a prince in Jesus, they crucified him between two thieves. The socialists want Christ to be a socialist, and his followers to be socialists. Failing that, Christ will be crucified between two more thieves named Indifference and Despair.

A New and Perverse Faith

Brownson recognized that Socialism was a new religion, that it regarded itself as more Christian than Christianity, and that it confidently anticipated the fading away of the old religion to be replaced by the religion of Progress. All that would be required was that Christians need to board the progress train, that they need to recognize in socialism a clear mirror image of the Gospels; so clear the image could animate them to unthinkingly follow and obey the mandates of the socialist prophets all the way into the materialist heaven of this brave new world.

But socialism, because it preaches a heaven on earth rather than where heaven really is, constitutes a profoundly radical heresy, devilishly clever in the lies by which its “truths” are preached. It is the heresy to end all heresies, because there is no way to go further down than into the hell of materialism, which enfeebles all our aspiring to be our better selves; for if we are all to be equal, how can we rise at all, even above our own spiritually-dwarfed selves? It is this bowing and scraping to the equality of all-with-all that must prepare the way for “the worship of Antichrist as soon as he shall appear in person.” Socialism is seductive because the worship of Equality among the masses is sure to flatter the masses, who possess a chronic envy of wealth and power. According to Brownson, “Surely Satan has here, in Socialism, done his best, almost outdone himself, and would, if it were possible, deceive the very elect, so that no flesh should be saved.”

Moreover, Brownson asserts, the heresy of socialism relies upon the assumption that our good lies in the natural order, and is not attainable by individual effort. That is to say, our good, our freedom to prosper, can only come from the effort of the collective. The socialist reminds us that Christ came to liberate us from evil, which means that “all have an equal right to the possession of good.” Hence, society must be so organized as to compel all to behave in the interest of all. But the gospel of Christ was to liberate all, that all our goods are within our natural individual reach. If we surrender our good to the design and management of others, we lose the very freedom we in principle want. The strength of Christianity and the defect of socialism in a nutshell is as follows.

Here is the Christian doctrine of Liberty, the glorious liberty which our religion reveals, and which we know by divine faith is no deception. But the Liberty the Socialists commend, and which the people are seeking, is not Christian liberty, for it is not liberty at all. Socialism, by its very principle, enslaves us to nature and society, and subjects us to all the fluctuations of time and sense. According to it, man can attain to true good, can gain the end for which he was made, only in a certain political and social order, which it depends on the millions, whom the individual cannot control, to construct, and which, when constructed, may prove to be inconvenient and inadequate, and require to be pulled down and built up again. The individual, it teaches us, can make no advance toward his destiny but in proportion as he secures the cooperation of his race. All men must be brought down or raised up to the same level before I can go to the end for which my God made me; each man’s true good is unattainable, till all men are prepared “to take a pull, a strong pull, a long pull, and a pull altogether” to attain theirs. This is slavery, not liberty.

Brownson held that Socialism is foolish because it takes away from the individual the power to forge his own destiny and gives it to the collective. The economic evil that is in the world is due to sin, and sin can only be overcome by virtue. Any individual well disposed can avoid sin; the collective, disposed as it is to thwart individual freedom, can hardly avoid sin (had Brownson lived in the 20th century, he would have had plenty of evidence at hand to prove his case in the history of Russia, Germany, and China, where socialism ruled and individual freedom was virtually limited to a few tyrants).

When the socialists insist that Christ was a socialist because he advocated equal opportunity for salvation to all (not just the few) they forget that Christ never advocated class warfare, but rather the war of the virtue-disposed person against his own particular demons. If all are converted in their hearts and minds to Christ, in other words, if we all do unto others as we would have them do unto us, social justice will take care of itself. Socialism offers no such conversion, but rather puts the source of all salvific power in the hands of an omnipotent State prone, as proven by the world history of governments, to corruption, disease, and collapse. It is for this reason that the Church should be regarded as a higher and more venerable power than the State, and that obedience to Christian values alone will save us in this world and prepare salvation in the world to come.

But, many will object, the spirit of the age is no longer Catholic. The heathens assert their will as dominant, and some advise it is better for the Church to make peace with that will. To which Brownson eloquently replied:

We have all along been endeavoring to establish that the age is Socialistic, and that socialism is unchristian — nay, anti-Christian. Those, then, who urge the Church to make an alliance with the people in their movements, to baptize Socialism, and even give it Holy Communion, or who suppose they can without detriment to religion sympathise with these movements, we leave to defend themselves as best they may….

The Church is not of this world, and her principles are not those which govern the princes or the people of this world. She is the Spouse of God in this world, the mother of the faithful, the teacher of truth, and the dispenser of the Bread of Life to all who will receive it. They who are nursed with the milk from her bosom, who receive the Bread of Life from her hands and eat thereof, shall never hunger or thirst, shall never die, but shall live forever. All she asks of governments and social institutions is that they leave her free, that is, violate in their administration no law of God. If the people grow discontented with the material order they find existing, she expounds to them the law; if in violation of the law, as she expounds it, they still persevere and introduce a new order, be it what it may, she does not desert them; she continues to present herself in her divine character before them, and to discharge for them her sacred mission. She has a truly maternal heart, and seeks always and everywhere the true good of the people for time and for eternity; but she knows that Almighty God has made their good only on one condition, and therefore on that one condition she must insist. She explains it to the people, she exhorts and entreats them with divine tenderness to comply with it; but if they regard themselves as wiser than she, refuse to comply with the indispensable condition proposed, and will return to the old heathen order and seek their good from nature and human society, instead of seeking it from God and his Church, she grieves over them as our Lord grieved over Jerusalem devoted to destruction, but she can do no more. Their sin is on their own head, and they must reap the fruit of their own sowing. Themselves they may destroy, — her they cannot harm.

Post Script: Equalitarianism and the flight from common sense

It cannot be ignored that currently in North America there has been for some time a radical swing toward political, economic and social equalitarianism. Socialists worldwide embrace this as their mission. This is manifested in the view gaining currency in nearly every nation that all claims to equal rights are valid. Atheists in the 1950s claimed it their right to forbid God in the public schoolroom. Right granted. Pornographers claimed that their product was equally deserving of 1st Amendment protection as any other kind of speech. Right granted. Women demand the right to warrior status in the military. Right granted. The abortion lobbyers, on behalf of feminists, claim that women have rights, exceeding the rights of unborn children, to annihilate them in the womb at any moment of pregnancy, and even after birth. Right granted. Sodomites claim the right to march in parades and promote their lifestyle for all to see and respect (even in grade schools). Right granted. Transgender claims of sexual identity, so that a man can claim to be a woman and a woman can claim to be a man, are demanded as a right. Right granted. More recently, same-same sex marriage (nowhere in the world before now ever even countenanced) is demanded as a legal right. Right granted. All this is prelude, of course, to the final demand: equal income for everyone as a constitutionally guaranteed right (another right to be made up out of thin air).

Brownson is on target when he says all this equalitarianism is unnatural, though the socialists and their ilk would make it the norm. A recent Axios poll shows that 4 in 10 American citizens aged 18-58 favour socialism over capitalism. The political, economic, and social thrust toward equalitarianism is well defined and powerful. But nothing in nature is equal. To force equality upon all things is to deny the inherent differences God endowed us with. The only equality we all have together is the dignity of being equally the sons and daughters of God, and of equally being endowed with the grace to achieve our final and immortal destiny. But even almighty God does not impose his will on us so mercilessly as socialists are likely to (20th century history proves this) once they control the levers of a command society. If socialism is not fiercely resisted, it may well achieve its goal; and if it does, hell in the hereafter may be only a more lively memory of hell in the here-and-now. 

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Carl Sundell is Emeritus Professor of English and Humanities at Quinsigamond Community College in Worcester, Massachusetts. The author of several books including The Intellectual and the Gunman, Four Presidents, and Shaw versus Chesterton, he has published various articles in New Oxford Review and Catholic Insight. He currently resides in Lubbock, Texas where he is developing a book of short essay for students of Catholic apologetics