Can They Bring Real Happiness?
Capitalism? Communism? Socialism?
THE pursuit of happiness by means of material prosperity is not a new idea. It was the way of life of many ancient Greeks and Romans. But it fell into disrepute throughout the entire Middle Ages. Why? Mainly for religious reasons.
Medieval society was dominated by religion in every field of human activity. For the Eastern Orthodox and Roman Catholic Churches, poverty was a virtue. It was a “test” that had to be accepted by the poor. The rich were rich and the poor were poor by what was labeled a God-ordained arrangement. Voluntary poverty was considered “holy,” and “usury” (lending for gain) was condemned by canon law.
Yet, while anathematizing Jewish moneylenders, Catholic cathedral chapters lent money at high interest rates. The papacy itself became “the greatest financial institution of the Middle Ages.” This was the setup during much of the period of the feudal-ecclesiastical order.
The Birth of Capitalism
With the breakup of the feudal system, town and intercity trade grew. So did trade between nations. And ideas circulated more freely, particularly after the invention of the printing press. The influence of the Catholic Church began to wane.
Medieval Catholicism had been the greatest obstacle to the development of a new economic system. Yet pockets of capitalistic trading, manufacturing and banking had been growing toward the end of the Middle Ages right within Catholic Christendom. This was true in such Catholic cities as Venice in Italy, Augsburg in Germany and Antwerp in Flanders.
Then the Protestant Reformation broke out in the 16th century. While it would be an exaggeration to say that the Reformation fathered capitalism, it did release ideas that gave a decided boost to it. For one thing, Calvinism relieved legitimate business profit of the stigma of “usury.” Moreover, certain Protestant beliefs provided people with the incentive to work hard so as to succeed in life and thus prove they were among the “elect.” Success in business was considered to be a sign of God’s blessing. The resulting wealth became available “capital” for investment in one’s own business venture or some other one. Thus, the Protestant ethic of hard work and thrift contributed to the expansion of capitalism.
Not surprisingly, the capitalist economy developed faster in Protestant countries than in Catholic states. But the Catholic Church quickly made up for lost time. She allowed capitalism to develop in lands where she was powerful, and became an extremely rich capitalist organization in her own right.a
Capitalism undoubtedly provided an improvement over the feudal system, if only for the greater freedom it brought to the working classes. But it also brought many injustices. The gap between the rich and the poor tended to widen. At its worst, it brought about exploitation and class warfare. At its best, it produced an affluent consumer society in some lands, with material fullness. But it has also produced spiritual emptiness, and has failed to bring true and lasting happiness.
Is Communism the Way to Happiness?
The Protestant Reformation was a revolt against papal abuse of power and privilege. Yet it unleashed a flood of ideas that went far beyond what the original Reformers anticipated. These ideas—sooner or much later—were to produce revolutions in fields other than religion. Not only did the revolt against Rome boost the development of capitalism but it also contributed to innovations in the fields of science, technology and philosophy—leading to godless beliefs.
With the advent of the steam engine and machinery, capitalism spread out from the field of commerce into that of industry. The latter part of the 18th century and the 19th century saw the creation of huge factories requiring a large labor force recruited among peasants, craftsmen and even children. But capitalist “exploitation of man by man” led to the creation of workers’ movements and revolutionary philosophies such as communism.
Theoretically, the term “communism” denotes “systems of social organization based upon common property, or an equal distribution of income and wealth.” In current practice, communism is a system of government based on the holding of property by the state, which controls the economy under a one-party political structure.
For millions of have-nots throughout the world, communism seemed to offer hope for a better life. It appeared to be the best means for leveling off the flagrant social inequalities created by the capitalist system. Many were even prepared to forgo immediate hopes of freedom if, by means of a revolution, better living conditions could be obtained. Freedom would come later, so they thought. But years have gone by. The communist system of government has had time to show what it is capable of in many countries. The results have been disappointing, even with regard to material prosperity, not to speak of freedom and happiness.
For years, in the Western world, many of the young—and even some not so young—were attracted by the communist ideology. But persistent bad news seeping out of many communist lands and the one-way flow of refugees have left many disillusioned.
Is Socialism a Better Way?
The word “socialism” comes from the Latin word socius, meaning “companion.” It was first used in England at the beginning of the 19th century, and a little later in France. It was applied to the social theories of Englishman Robert Owen (1771-1858) and Frenchmen Saint-Simon (1760-1825) and Charles Fourier (1772-1837).
Owen criticized the capitalist organization of industry, based on competition and on the exploitation of the workers. He recommended a cooperative system in which men and women would live in “Villages of Unity and Cooperation,” enjoying the fruits of their labor in both agriculture and industry. Several Owenite communities were set up in Scotland, Ireland and even in the United States. But they eventually disintegrated.
In France, Fourier advocated the creation of model communities called phalansteries, consisting of people who would work according to their preferences. Unlike Owen, who accepted state intervention to set up his “villages,” Fourier believed his system would work on an entirely voluntary basis. Moreover, members of his communities would be paid according to their efforts and would be allowed to own property. Fourier thought he had discovered a social organization that corresponded with men’s natural desires in their search for happiness. Fourierist communities were actually set up in Europe and in the United States. But they also failed.
Nearer to modern socialism were the ideas of Frenchman Saint-Simon. He advocated the collective ownership of the means of production and their administration by experts in the fields of science, technology, industry and finance. Saint-Simon believed that cooperation between science and industry would produce a new society in which people would have equal opportunity of finding prosperity according to their abilities and the amount and quality of their work.
While none of these early socialist ideologies succeeded, they paved the way for later movements. They were the early voices of modern-day socialism, which has been defined as a system of social organization based on public ownership and control of the principal means of production and distribution of goods. While its fundamental aims are similar to those of communism, present-day social democracy differs from Marxism in that it advocates progressive reforms but not revolution and a one-party system.
Although more respectful of individual freedom than communism, socialism has not succeeded in bringing about international peace and happiness. Why?
Why the Failure?
For one thing, socialism has not proved itself more powerful than nationalism. Concerning the Second International, a federation of Socialist parties and trade unions founded in 1889, we read that it “issued many moving and stirring manifestoes against war, but when war broke out [in 1914] it disclosed its paralysis. Most of its national components sided with their own governments and abandoned the idea of international working-class solidarity.”—Encyclopædia Britannica.
Since then, the socialist movement has continued to be fragmented and to mean different things to different people. The name socialist is used by various governments throughout the world, some of which differ very little from progressive conservative governments, whereas others are authoritarian and even totalitarian. The word “socialist” has therefore lost much of its meaning for many sincere people who thought it would lead to a worldwide brotherhood in a classless society of material prosperity and happiness.
Little wonder that French trade-union leader Edmond Maire wrote in Le Monde: “The historic failure of the labor movement in its ambition to build socialism . . . [has] led a number of militants—both workers and intellectuals—to give up even the long-term hopes. . . . The young appear to be particularly affected by this weakening of the socialist hope.”
Thus, whether it be by means of capitalism, communism or socialism, mankind’s quest for a system that will bring material prosperity and real happiness has failed. American sociologist Daniel Bell admits: “For the radical intelligentsia, the old ideologies have lost their ‘truth,’ and their power to persuade. Few serious minds believe any longer that one can set down ‘blueprints’ and through ‘social engineering’ bring about a new utopia of social harmony.”—The End of Ideology.
Yet this quest for material prosperity and happiness is a natural one. Why, then, have human economic and political systems been unable to attain it? The following article will examine that question.
a See The Vatican Empire, by Catholic author Nino Lo Bello.
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Many have become disillusioned with communism, as evidenced by the one-way flow of refugees
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The economic system in which all or most of the means of production and distribution of goods (land, mines, factories, railroads, and so forth) are privately owned and operated for profit, the owners (capitalists) hiring the labor services of capitalless persons (workers)
A system of social organization based on the holding of all property by the community or the state, which plans and controls the economy under a one-party political structure
A system of social organization based on public ownership and control of the principal means of production and distribution of goods; distinguished from communism in the Western world in that it advocates progressive reforms within a democratic society
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Child working in a coal mine in Britain in 1842