A Fake War against Materialism
Integrity’s Fake War against Materialism
A review of Carol Robinson’s My Life with Thomas Aquinas, Angelus Press, Kansas City, 1995
by Dr Carol Byrne
Angelus Press advertized the book as follows:
Chapter after chapter on how to apply Saint Thomas’s teachings to modern society - and why we must do so if we are to have any hope of leaving this world with our souls intact. Far from being an esoteric philosophical treatise, this book is eminently practical, engaging, and highly rewarding for any Catholic.
The publishers are thus purporting to offer a book packed from cover to cover with spiritual direction to Catholics, based on the teachings of St Thomas Aquinas, to lead a truly holy life that will fit us for heaven. To provide such a key to holiness would be an immensely charitable act, especially amid the confusion and error unleashed upon the Church by Vatican II, but, unfortunately for Catholics living in modern society, Carol Robinson does not provide such a book.
When Carol Robinson (née Jackson) went to live in Greenwich Village, New York in the late 1930s “with a lot of other college graduates seeking refuge from the bourgeois world,” (1) she became immersed in the counter-cultural revolution against traditional values for which that location was notorious. Greenwich Village had for decades attracted a wide variety of radicals, including Dorothy Day, because it offered a bohemian lifestyle, i.e. the opportunity to exercise personal and creative freedom in an atmosphere of anarcho-socialism. It is noteworthy that their radicalism was part of a larger movement of middle-class social drop-outs in rebellion against the cultural views of the previous generation which represented conventional morality, traditional gender relations, private property and the political status quo. Above all, they aimed to liberate the human consciousness from the restraints of “bourgeois” values and sought to spark a revolution for the reconstruction of society along Socialist lines. They shared a common disdain for class distinctions, economic competition and a desire for some form of extended “family” or community where everyone would be “free.”
Such attitudes helped to fuel the revolutionary politics of Greenwich Village radicals, and explain much of the background of Carol Robinson’s thinking – immersion in the sub-culture of like-minded people helped to solidify her commitment to the radical politics that would later surface in her Integrity writings.
Robinson and the Young Christian Workers
In the early 1940s, Robinson came into the orbit of Fr Francis Wendell, OP, who was the leader of the lay apostolate in New York and spiritual adviser to the Young Christian Workers. He envisioned a whole network of Catholic Action groups throughout America working to reconstruct society, and managed to convey to her a lasting enthusiasm for this project – she was still recommending it in her Integrity writings. Under his spiritual guidance, she became a Catholic in 1941 and immediately sought ways to put her radical ideas into action within the Church through the Young Christian Workers.(2)
The methodology of the Young Christian Workers was the “See, Judge, Act” formula whereby small groups known as “cells” of factory and shop workers were encouraged to read the Bible, observe the “inequalities” of their workplaces, and decide on actions needed to bring about changes which would reflect their idea of the Gospel and Catholic social doctrine. Needless to say, their “observations” were coloured by a Marxist analysis of social and economic issues. Central to their world-view was the belief, accepted as a self-evident truth, that Capitalism was evil because it created the conditions for economic exploitation of the masses. Employers were invariably cast as the “oppressors” and their employees as “victims” in need of liberation. One can see the same cycle repeating itself in Robinson’s publications which call for a generalized revolution against all social and political institutions. The result is that the countercultural, Marxist view of Capitalism has become so embedded in Catholic circles that it is equated with the Gospels.
Influence of the Catholic Worker Movement
Fr Wendell introduced Robinson to Ed Willock who was part of the Worcester, Massachusetts Catholic Worker. Dorothy Day, founder of the Movement, recounted how Willock had been influenced by his meeting with her co-founder, Peter Maurin: “Ed always said that he learned many things from Peter.” (3) In 1950, Dorothy Day was delighted to announce that both Robinson (then known as Carol Jackson) and Willock had been attending Catholic Worker meetings at Mott Street, New York. (The Catholic Worker July-August 1950)
Through their association with Day and Maurin, Robinson and Willock imbibed, among other things, the misguided theories of “Christian Communism”, the “Green Revolution”, Distributism and the “back to the land” movement. Willock once told Dorothy Day: “I count myself as a…spiritual god-child of you and Peter.” (4) He acknowledged his and Robinson’s debt to the CWM in a 1953 Commonweal article on “Catholic Radicalism” in which he wrote: “We established a policy which made us dependent for our very survival upon the efficacy of Catholic Worker indoctrination.” There could not have been a clearer indication that Robinson and Willock were steeped in Socialism, for authentic documentary evidence exists to prove that the Catholic Worker in general and its two founders in particular made common cause with Communist-led movements to make Socialism acceptable within the Catholic Church under the guise of “Christian Communism.” (5)
Robinson’s would-be “canonization” of Jane Addams [
The Catholic Workers were not the only proponents of “Christian Communism” to make a favourable impression on Robinson. Her references to the radical social reformer, Jane Addams, reveal the deep-seated moral muddle of those who welcome “Christian Communism” with open arms. Robinson acknowledged that Addams, who was a pioneer founder of settlement houses in America, used her Chicago-based establishment, Hull House, as a centre for what she described as “noble” and “heroic efforts” on behalf of the poor.
Robinson omitted to mention, however, the essential nature of Addams’s work was to disseminate Socialism throughout the USA and to weaken American defences against Communist infiltration. For Addams was a radical feminist, a pacifist and a founding member of the American Civil Liberties Union. (6) She coordinated and led a massive network of women sociologists inspired by the “Social Gospel” aiming to create a just and liberated society along vaguely religious lines.(7)
How a Catholic could consider the work of Jane Addams as “noble” and refer to the “greatness” of her reforms, even on a natural, humanitarian level, should give pause for thought. As the leading resident, she ran the Hull House settlement as a sounding board for every kind of Socialist agenda. (8) Guest speakers included the Soviet agent, Anna Louise Strong and the Russian anarchist, Peter Kropotkin, both of whom stayed at Hull House when visiting the US. Among the long-term residents were Rachelle Yarros, a Russian immigrant and Socialist who opened the first birth control clinic in Chicago (9), Max Shachtman, a Russian immigrant and member of the American Communist Party, and Florence Kelley, a member of the Socialist Labour Party and a personal associate of Lenin and Engels, who exerted a decisive influence on Addams in the labour movement. (10)
The Russian connection is significant, as Addams had always argued in favour of the recognition of Russia and the disarming of America. She was one of the stockholders, along with Lenin, in the Russian-American Industrial Corporation founded by the Russian immigrant, Sydney Hillman, which furnished financial aid to the USSR. (11) It is not surprising, therefore, that Lenin was one of the financial investors in Hull House and that his widow, Krupskaya, was among those who paid tribute to Addams in an international radio broadcast in 1935 for her anti-militarist efforts. (12)
Given the international fame of Jane Addams in the field of social reform, it is difficult to believe that Robinson was unaware of these facts about Hull House as the hub of a potential Socialist revolution. Her remark that if only Addams had been a Catholic she would have been made a saint (p. 267) is incomprehensible, as was the comparison she made between Addams and St Frances Cabrini on the grounds that both had worked among the poor in Chicago. But that raises some logical objections: if Addams had adhered to the Catholic faith, she would not have been justified in pursuing the aims which Robinson described as “noble” and “heroic.” Nor could the Catholic Church canonize such a person without contradicting its own supernatural mission.
The really puzzling thing is that Robinson did not see that the activities at Hull House were driven by the spirit of evil – she only attributed that to capitalist enterprises. She was thus in the same camp as Dorothy Day who was also an admirer of Jane Addams and Hull House. (CW May 1967)
The founding of Integrity Magazine
In 1946, Robinson and Willock became the joint Editors of the Integrity magazine, with Robinson providing the financial backing and Willock the art work. According to Dorothy Day, it was Robinson’s idea to start the magazine – it lasted until 1955 – and Day went on to describe it in gushing terms as “such a source of inspiration to so many students and intellectuals.” (13) Robinson stated that “its purpose was to examine the relationship between religion and life in the modern world, using the teachings of St Thomas Aquinas.” (p. 2) The front cover of each magazine stated that it was “published by lay Catholics and dedicated to the task of discovering a new synthesis of religion and life for our times.” What exactly they were intending to synthesize remains to be seen, but we are given to understand that the projected outcome would be cataclysmic for American society, for according to a contemporary writer, James Terence Fisher, who knew them personally, she and Willock “openly talked of tearing down the existing social order and replacing it with a Christian one.” (14)Total revolution, then, was the object of the exercise.
Time Magazine of 14 October 1946, evidently using the words of Integrity’s Editors, stated that the aims of the new journal would be to “blast lay Catholics free from materialism and worldly compromise” and to “help lift their daily lives as sacraments to God.” Implicit in this advertising scam are two preposterous assumptions about the Catholic population of that time:
• First, that materialism was the determining factor in the lives of lay Catholics and that they were just as worldly as atheists
• And secondly that they needed to be helped by Integrity to turn their lives into sacraments
The first point is a crude generalization and will be dealt with in more detail below. The second is theologically faulty, being contrary to Catholic doctrine – our lives cannot become sacraments because they are not the efficacious cause of grace “ex opere operato.” To suggest that they could be is to introduce one of those “poisonous doctrines” of Modernism condemned by Pope St Pius X which confuse the natural and supernatural orders. (15)
Integrity and materialism
We have seen how the self-proclaimed aim of Integrity was to combat “materialism” which Robinson attributed to her Catholic contemporaries in the US, but what exactly did she mean by “materialism?” In normal terms it refers to the worldview of those who do not believe in God, who maintain that the universe is explainable solely in material terms and who rate worldly success and acquisitions as the highest values in life. Robinson’s assessment is clearly untrue because throughout the period when Integrity was published, which coincided with the papacy of Pius XII, the Church strongly resisted the temptation to accommodate itself to the world and remained a moral beacon to mankind. There is plenty of evidence to prove the reverse of Robinson’s claim:
"When Pope John XXIII opened the Second Vatican Council in 1962, the Catholic Church in America was in the midst of an unprecedented period of growth. Bishops were ordaining record numbers of priests and building scores of seminaries to handle the surge in vocations. Young women by the thousands gave up lives of comfort for the austerity of the convent. These nuns taught millions of students in the huge system of parochial and private schools.
The ranks of Catholics swelled as parents brought in their babies for Baptism and adult converts flocked to the Church. Lines outside the confessionals were long, and by some estimates three quarters of the faithful went to Mass every Sunday."
There are reliable statistics to show that the influence of the Church and the vitality of the Catholic community were at their height in the years leading up to Vatican II. In his Battle for the American Church , Mgr. Kelly produces statistics on Mass attendance, seminary training, Catholic education (with the Baltimore Catechism) and conversions to illustrate the progress of American Catholicism before Vatican II and its status as the most important and influential religious body in the U.S.A. In terms of the Church’s influence on its members, Mgr Kelly concludes that “the institutional and community accomplishments of the American Church are unsurpassed in Catholic history.”
So in the absence of a coherent message on Robinson’s part, let’s try to figure out what her campaign against “materialism” was really promoting.
Integrity equates Capitalism with materialism
The major logical flaw with Robinson’s line of argument is that she consistently used the word Capitalism as interchangeable with materialism. By conflating these terms, she could talk about Capitalism as if it were the natural enemy of Christianity and inveigle muddle-headed Catholics to reject the former with the latter as equally destructive forces in society.
Herein lies the intellectually dishonest nature of her argumentation, for she attempted to demonstrate that Capitalism is inherently evil by attacking something of an essentially different nature. She failed to distinguish on the one hand between materialism, which denies the supernatural, transcendent and spiritual nature of reality and, on the other hand, Capitalism which is based on voluntary exchange and presupposes the idea of free will and therefore the ability to choose between good and evil.
Robinson seemed to think a priori that the two processes are conjoined and that the burden of proof is on the other side. But, if we begin by acknowledging the vital distinction between materialism and the production of material goods, the burden of proof is on Robinson et al. They have to demonstrate and explain the identity between the two. It is not sufficient to attribute the evils of our post-Christian, hedonistic society to the operations of the free market: that would be to confuse cause with correlation.
Robinson constantly used Capitalism as a pejorative term, without giving any consideration to the possibility of its being used in Christian ways. It is particularly ironic that, in order to give the Catholic answer to Capitalism, which she called one of the “root evils” of society (p. 266), she borrowed heavily from Marx’s economic theories. Thus she presented Capitalism as a destructive force that depends for its survival on the sweat of poor men’s labour and that forces people to work at soul-destroying jobs so that they can buy commodities they do not need. Inherent in this view is the idea that Capitalism leads to excessive “consumerism” and makes us greedy and materialistic.
But does increased prosperity necessarily lead us to assume that happiness can be found in owning material goods? Does wealth beget an appetite for more possessions and an insatiable desire for unlimited profit? And does it actually weaken virtue, cause us to become slaves of sin and lead to immorality? We have the words of Christ that this is not the right way of looking at the question: while great wealth can indeed be a snare for the unwary, the real source of evil deeds is within the heart of man who is deceived by Satan with fantasies of material goods that lead him away from God. That is why projects to reduce the corporate wealth of society in general and the immense fortunes of successful businessmen in particular are irrelevant in the struggle to combat materialism.
Capitalism is not all about “material goods”
Following in the footsteps of Marx, Robinson believed that the main problem, from which all other social problems flow, is that Capitalism has distorted our entire lives by transforming every area of human experience into a “commodity” to be “sold” to us through persuasive advertising techniques. On this view, private profit, not human need, has become the goal of economic activity, with the result that all relationships are governed by money considerations.
But this is an extremely narrow and biased assessment: not everyone operating in the free market pursues their own financial gain to the exclusion of all else. There is no force operating in the free market that requires the sole pursuit of material possessions, unless that is our preference.
Robinson’s opinion that Capitalism is concerned only with consumerism and get-rich-quick incentives overlooks and minimizes the power of rewards that motivate, not just compensate. Economic incentives alone do not explain the goals and objectives of all who work in the capitalist system, whether entrepreneurs or employees. While there are some who work to gain money for its own sake, many others are achievement-oriented and motivated primarily by a variety of worthy aims: the desire to create something new, to exercise leadership skills, to develop and manage systems, to use their knowledge and expertise to good advantage or simply to occupy their time usefully, for which they expect to receive a just financial reward.
In attributing the basest of motives to capitalists, Robinson failed to understand that the production of wealth is primarily the result of man’s intellectual faculties, not only the thinking power of the scientist and inventor, but of the businessmen who organize knowledge and resources by bringing together the factors of production and seeking the co-operation of workers. Moreover, it is only by creating an esprit de corps – with bankers, customers, suppliers, and workers – based on non-material values such as commitment to contract, a strong sense of duty and diligence that a businessman can succeed.
There are many other intangible incentives and rewards that provide a powerful impulse to engage in the capitalist economy – a justified pride in professional standards and the production of quality goods, a sense of loyalty to the company and responsibility to the workers, satisfaction in contributing something of value to society etc. This is not to deny that many people act irrationally, pursuing material goods that do not make them happy. Some may indeed be imbued with an irrational desire for material goods, which leads them to disappointment rather than satisfaction, though this is not inherent in the free market.
For Christians, Capitalism and morality are intimately connected and mutually complementary. Capitalism cannot exist on its own. It needs strong institutions to support it.– the Church, families, educational programmes, the judiciary, civic and professional associations – which can teach virtues such as charity, compassion, hard work, self-discipline, perseverance and honesty, and can “referee” public behaviour, allotting rewards and punishments where appropriate. When imbued with such public-spiritedness, especially within the parameters of a Catholic State, Capitalism is beneficial to society because it helps advance material and spiritual goals.
Capitalism is not based on greed and selfish individualism
Robinson criticized the expansion of businesses and the practice of diversification of products, accusing businessmen of “trafficking in anything that is profitable” in order to satisfy a limitless desire for money. (p. 171) She implied that it is therefore the duty of Catholics to oppose large-scale businesses on moral grounds. In her eagerness to caricature the free market as the site of ceaseless “exploitation” and greed, Robinson got herself into an unnecessary tangle by supposing that because businesses must rely on continual profits for their existence, their owners are motivated by unlimited greed. (20)
But that is a non sequitur because in a free-market private property system, the businessman has a social duty to increase his profits, since society is best served by his doing so: as Capitalism allows ideas, knowledge, talent, effort, goods, resources, commodities, and currency to be freely traded, profit in every sense of the word is derived directly and indirectly to the advantage of each person engaged in the contract. Therefore, to gain an advantage from other people, one must contribute something of value to their advantage too.
So Capitalism cannot be based on unmitigated greed or the pursuit of selfish interest at the expense of others. It may permit greedy and selfish people to operate in the free market, but it also has a constraining influence, for they can only make a profit by providing something of value to the purchaser. It is true that some people place an unwarranted value on fripperies and unnecessary luxuries and are prepared to squander their money on them, but the moral value of Capitalism depends ultimately on the personal virtue of those engaged in it. So the onus is on the individual to resist the pull of the material world and exercise the virtues of prudence and temperance in daily living. As usual, critics of free-market Capitalism who fear that it will lead to materialism and consumerism underestimate the ability of individuals, aided by the grace of God, to act responsibly and to make rational decisions for their own and others’ well-being.
Greed, as defined by St Thomas Aquinas, is the excessive love of earthly things and the placing of all one’s trust in them: “a sin against God, just as all mortal sins, in as much as man condemns things eternal for the sake of temporal things.” It is essential to understand that the “love of money” (philarguria) condemned in the New Testament (1 Tim 6:10) and the profit motive are two distinct things, even though they can coincide in an individual’s mind. Greed is therefore a sin of the spirit whereby wealth is desired as an end in itself, leading a person to do anything whatever to obtain it. (21) “Love of money” is a “root” of all sorts of evil things.
Actually this issue of the morality of profits had already been settled centuries before Marx introduced his labour theory of value. It was Marx’s theory which poisoned the minds of Left-leaning Catholics, including Robinson, leading them to characterize employers as blood-suckers on the work force. Cicero had already discussed it more than two thousand years ago (at some time during the period 46–43 B.C.) St Thomas Aquinas, who was certainly familiar with Cicero’s De Officiis accepted much of his reasoning, including the fact that the merchant is, after all, in the business of making money.
St Thomas condemned the pursuit of profit as an end in itself, but not profit-making businesses directed to some honest and necessary end. Greed and dishonesty are the vices of individuals, but are not inherent in business itself which can be conducted without these vices. There is thus no reason to believe that all successful industrialists are necessarily guilty of greed and that businesses cannot be regulated and balanced by concerns other than raw profit. There have always been successful company owners and directors who believed that there are more important ends than money, who were solicitous for their workers’ safety and welfare and who were willing to observe ethical standards in business. In other words, integrity and moral standards are compatible with high profit margins. To suggest that big companies are based on greed is once again to confuse Capitalism with materialism.
Finance Capitalism and “Usury”
Like all followers of Marx, Robinson viewed interest income with particular hatred, repeatedly singling out bankers and accusing them of being “usurers.” Of course, usury, the act of taking profit on a loan without a just title, is sinful, but the Church does not hold and never did hold that making a profit in business transactions or in commercial investments is wrong. Usury has always been condemned as an attempt to gain profit by no labour, expense or risk from something which does not fructify (money) and hence can afford no just title for gain.
The strict usury laws of the Old Testament were primarily concerned with man’s spiritual welfare (to regulate his relationship with others and protect the poor from exploitation), not with the temporal goods that cannot be taken into eternity. Those principles still apply and can be enacted today even though the circumstances of modern finances are vastly different from biblical times. There is plenty of scope within the present economic system for generosity towards the poor in private charitable giving or loaning without interest, which is the special duty of the rich, and should be encouraged.
Robinson seems not to have benefited by one of the most enlightening and yet little known documents of the Magisterium, Vix Pervenit (1745), in which Pope Benedict XIV set out what exactly constitutes usury in developed economies and distinguishes it from legitimate financial transactions. It is explained that a just transaction is characterized by an equality of exchange, one where each side receives exactly his due. This means that it is never permissible for a lender to demand more from a borrower than the exact sum loaned: “The law governing loans consists necessarily in the equality of what is given and returned.” An important proviso is that, although it is never justified to charge interest on a loan, there can be entirely just and legitimate reasons extrinsic to the contract making the payment of interest necessary to maintain equality of exchange in the longer term. The Pope stated that “the sin [of usury] rests on the fact that sometimes the creditor desires more than he has given.” These are cases in which the greed of the lender takes unjust advantage of the weakness or ignorance of the borrower, often leading him further into ruin.
Today, this is the province of the predatory “loan shark” who plies his trade among the poor and, unlike the mainstream financiers, operates outside the law. Unfortunately, Robinson made no distinction between financial gain which is morally justified and upheld by the courts of law and that which is obtained by usury.
With this in mind, we can see the fallacy in Robinson’s assessment when she accused capitalist banks and financial institutions of “growing” fortunes (i.e. creating money out of money) by lending capital at interest and exploiting the desperate situation of the masses. If we take her statement that “financial capitalism has made money out of money (more accurately out of credit” and that “industrial capitalism has made money out of our needs, real and artificial” (p. 173), we can see that she has skewed the situation to make it appear monstrously unjust. (22)
However, banking and money-changing are an old and perfectly legitimate profession. (23) As far as banks were concerned, Robinson opined that “because these loans are not necessarily, or even primarily, productive loans, it would also be quite accurate to call bankers “usurers.” (p. 170) A footnote purporting to be based on Aquinas and Aristotle, further “explains”:
If usury is permitted, by a normal process the wealth of a society will accumulate in the hands of the usurer. This accounts for the enormous power of the banks.
This is simply a wildly inaccurate slur against bankers from someone who obviously either has no understanding of modern economics or is determined to preach Marx’s theories to the faithful. The vilification of interest-bearing loans as “unproductive” and therefore a form of “usury” is based on the assumption that they do not produce wealth but merely wrest it from the “true” productive forces in society, the workers.
Robinson was simply out of her depth and took refuge in sophistries. In the real world of practical economics, every free transaction creates wealth. A bank makes money by charging a higher interest rate on its loans than it pays out to depositors. In other words, it buys cheap and sells dear. But there is no unfairness involved. There is nothing morally reprehensible about making money for offering a financial service to others when the investor uses his expertise, has financial outlays and shares in the risks involved in the transaction. By making money available for another’s use, the bank places economic power at the disposal of the borrower. Thus it performs a valuable service by taking the money of those who save and loaning it for a fee to those who need it. So banks are at the very core of a functioning economy for a very good reason: they make money move around so that it can be invested in the most efficient wealth-creating endeavours which will be ultimately to the benefit of all.
Large businesses also make a significant contribution to the creation of wealth. By borrowing money at one rate, and investing it more profitably, they can contribute to economic growth and provide employment, goods and services.
Consumer credit, when given and taken responsibly, (24) renders a service to the whole community. A loan made to a solvent person, instead of being onerous to the borrower, is rather an advantage: a community’s economic prosperity relies to a large extent on the purchasing power of individuals. There would be no point in the expansion of businesses if no one except the rich could purchase their products.
In similar vein, Robinson accused the life insurance industry of profiting on people’s deaths and misfortunes, and concluded: “Were charity fluid in society it would not be necessary for everyone to insure against every eventuality of God’s providence.” (p. 173) But she has not provided any evidence to demonstrate that life insurance is contrary to Christian values. She failed to acknowledge that it is an act of charity to provide out of a sense of personal responsibility for one’s loved ones so that they will not be a burden on other people’s charity.
In other words, Robinson has failed abysmally in her attempt to show that the provision of life insurance is unworthy of a Christian. What lies behind her salvo, however, is only too obvious. She objected to life insurance companies because of their function in the capitalist economy. It is the duty of such companies to do the best they can for those whose money they hold in trust and also for future policy-holders. So they must ensure that the premium incomes received are invested efficiently. Robinson’s criticism was based on her dislike of the fact that the insurance industry, like all large investors, plays an important role in boosting the economy.
Industrialism and the Factory System
The same pernicious fallacy that Capitalism is not for Catholics underpins Robinson’s hostility to industrial development, large-scale businesses and the factory system of mass production. Her book reproduces a rhyme originally published in the first issue of Integrity:
Mr Business went to Mass;
He never missed a Sunday.
Mr Business went to Hell
For what he did on Monday (p. 2)
Its message was accompanied by a criticism of Mass-goers who do not share her views as hypocritical “Sunday only Catholics” who make a mockery out of their religion and deserve eternal punishment for engaging in capitalist enterprises during the week. Robinson did not believe that one could conduct business, worship God, and serve others while engaging in capitalist enterprises. She took it on herself to stand in judgement over the Catholic population as the sovereign arbiter of consciences. Apart from the uncharitable slur on those who simply do not fit into her definition of the “good society,” it is an insult to all those devout Catholics who work hard at capitalist enterprises not only for their own legitimate profit but for the good of the community as well.
When we examine the “reasoning” behind Robinson’s grouse against mass production, we find that, once again, it does not conform to Catholic teaching, for Aquinas has suddenly disappeared and Marx has stepped into his place. Throughout her book she solemnly intoned the main tenets of Marx’s theory of labour which, we must bear in mind, were based on a materialist philosophy of human nature.
Marx believed that, as work is the essence of human existence, the economic structure of Capitalism with its wage system produces a situation in which the product of a man’s labour is no longer his own and his entire life, which depends on work for its significance, becomes meaningless. Implicit in this theory is the belief that work is synonymous with free artistic creation, a potentially self-realizing activity, through which man develops himself. Marx stated that this cannot be fulfilled in the factory system where workers are regimented into a “dull routine of ceaseless drudgery and toil…in the service, under the rule, coercion and yoke of another man.”
In Capital Marx contrasted the work of craftsmen and artisans to that of the factory worker, and concluded that, as the worker’s relation to his work degenerates under capitalist modes of production, the relation between the worker and his essence also changes: he becomes “hollowed out”, a “living appendage to the machine”, a mere “cog” in the acquisition of capital and private property:
In handicrafts and manufacture, the workman makes use of a tool, in the factory, the machine makes use of him. There the movements of the instrument of labour proceed from him, here it is the movements of the machines that he must follow. In manufacture the workmen are parts of a living mechanism. In the factory we have a lifeless mechanism independent of the workman, who becomes a mere living appendage.
Robinson promoted the Marxist view that all work should bring joy and fulfilment to the worker, as against the teaching of St Thomas Aquinas that one of the punishments for Original Sin is the penal aspect of human labour which often makes work distasteful, difficult and frustrating. Borrowing from the Socialistic thinking of Eric Gill and Dorothy Day, she criticized the “monotony, frustration, waste, regimentation and impersonality of modern work” and called for its condemnation “because the nature of the work destroys human personality.” (p. 167) This has more to do with Marx’s theory of “alienation” than with St Thomas Aquinas. Marx criticized Capitalism, alleging precisely that it destroys individual personality, whereas Aquinas taught that it is sin that destroys human personality.
Robinson stated: “Almost all men have been robbed of satisfaction and creativity in their work.” (p. 226) This sweeping generalization contains a tendentious claim. Robinson did not address the question as to who “robbed” the poor and starving families of “satisfaction and creativity” when they were already living and working in conditions that could hardly be described as humanly fulfilling. The truth is that economic conditions were highly unsatisfactory on the eve of the Industrial Revolution when many families living in dire wretchedness. They migrated from all parts of England, Ireland and the Continent into the burgeoning cotton and iron industries.
As far as “satisfaction and creativity” in work are concerned, the assumption that job enrichment was sought by all workers does not reflect reality. Most people during the Industrial Revolution were grateful for the opportunity to earn a living in repetitive-type jobs. They chose to work in the mass production industry rather than opt for the small-scale handicraft activities producing for local and regional markets which coexisted with mechanized industries. Even in subsequent times, not all factory workers feel devalued or alienated or regard their jobs as boring, and some even prefer the simplicity and undemanding nature of routine jobs as best suiting their personalities.
Again parroting the words of Marx and Engels in the Communist Manifesto (25) that in the factory system human workers are subservient to machines and become like them, Robinson stated:
We have been integrated into our own complicated machinery rather than having it subserve us….Therefore it would not be unfair to conclude that on the altar of industrialism we have sacrificed our humanity. (p. 226)
She even went as far as to accuse industrialism of “turning us all into robots.” (p. 230) This inflated rhetoric is the language of “alienated labour” as used by Marx in his depiction of the factory worker as automaton. According to this analysis, by operating a machine the worker separates himself from his “true” self; he loses his humanity by turning himself into a machine. It was on the basis of this materialistic assumption that Robinson based her claim that Capitalism is inhuman.
Now that automation has replaced the need for human beings to perform purely repetitive tasks, Robinson switched tactics and dismissed modern factory workers as brainless “machine-tenders.” This is to underestimate the situation. Many different areas of expertise, from simple machine operating to advanced skills in mechanics and engineering, are required in order to manufacture a product. Factory workers may be at the bottom rung of the human hierarchy of system engineers, designers and architects, but that does not mean they do not use their brains on the job. Robinson has lost sight of the fact that even routine jobs require the use of judgment and discretion, improvisation in unforeseen circumstances and therefore a degree of personal responsibility. They also require the social skills of interaction with one’s colleagues or members of the public.
Robinson was determined not to see any genuine benefits accruing to humanity from the industrial system. “What has industrialism brought us?” she asked, and answered her own question with a totally negative appraisal. Robinson mentioned only “bourgeois comforts” and commodities, shoddy goods, poor nutrition and an increase in mental and physical ailments. Even the improved conditions and salaries were interpreted as a camouflage to mask the fact they we are “slaves” of the capitalist system, and technological inventions as “stepping stones to total tyranny” (p. 226) serving the forces of evil in the world.
According to Robinson’s conspiracy theory, industrialism is in reality a global enslavement machine that programmes people to imagine that they are free and conditions people to enjoy their servitude as well. She accused those who promote the spread of industrialism to underdeveloped countries such as India and China of conspiring to deliver the whole world to a system of centralized control “which will be the chief instrument both for dehumanizing men and of tyrannizing them absolutely.” (p. 48) Her sweeping condemnation included not only all who work in the financial sector and big business but all who co-operate in or benefit by Capitalism – which includes almost the whole of the Western world. According to Robinson, the envisaged “subjugation of peoples involves not just their external enslavement but a crushing of their spirits, a regimentation of their minds.” This statement is logically incoherent. Precisely how this subjugation of peoples is attributable to Capitalism is difficult to imagine given that Capitalism allows voluntary exchange and protects people from force or coercion, thereby limiting government control.
Having equated Capitalism with sin, Robinson was convinced that we are all slaves to the economic system which does the work of the devil by causing us to commit sin: “Legion are the immoralities which have been perpetuated to the chant of “industrial capitalism is here to stay.” (p. 254) In her view, the prosperity resulting from industrial expansion causes people to practise birth control, euthanasia and sexual immorality. (pp. 254-6) She stated, for example, that money-making factories provide a breeding ground for adultery because workers are subjected to a regime of boring and uncreative tasks.
Capitalism is not based on exploitation of the workers
Capitalism is wrongly characterized by Robinson as a system that gives an undue advantage to the rich, or to employers. That is because, like Marx, she saw the situation as a zero-sum game in which a gain for one party necessitates a loss for the other, ultimately leading to a class struggle. She stated that industrialism “enabled one man to profit readily by the exploitation of many” (p. 264) and that “Manufacturing, by and large, is a matter of concentrating machines and machine workers under the control of a certain organization for the end of enriching the owners thereof.” (p. 170 ) This is an undisguised attack on the private ownership of the means of production and the division of labour reminiscent of the Marxist view of “exploitation”. Marx argued that workers in private business firms are under the yoke of capitalists whose sole aim is the expansion of value (the accumulation of profit) and who “rob” the worker of his labour value. (26) Robinson’s antagonistic view of the employer-worker relationship was never part of Catholic social teaching. The Popes characterized the relationship as based on a complementarity of interests with rights and duties on both sides.
Industrialists in particular were the target of Robinson’s ire for the same reasons that Marx attacked them: they were considered to be the only ones to benefit financially. But the vast increase in production which they made possible benefits the whole of society. The fortunes they have made come from creating opportunity and financial rewards not only for their workers but for their shareholders, and ultimately value for their customers.
It is only through advances in technology permitted by Capitalism that the cost of food and commodities are well within the reach of the workers and that their living standards have been dramatically increased. It is through capitalist investments that pension funds are created by insurance companies for the nation’s retired workers, and through their taxes that health care and other benefits are provided as a “safety net” for the less fortunate members of society.
Robinson proceeded to trot out the discredited but still revolutionary Marxist cliché that capitalist economics is a zero-sum game “enriching some at the expense of others,” facilitating luxury goods “while millions are starving for lack of enough to eat.” (p. 177) In other words, gains for comfort and wealth of some are assumed to cause losses for other people. But the world’s starving millions do not live in capitalist societies but in tyrannical, war-mongering regimes which keep their people in destitution and oppression which prevents them from improving their condition.
Robinson made no secret of her aversion to advanced technology and complex machines. One could say that she suffered from a chronic form of technophobia, a visceral fear of and even hatred for modern science and the technological development it spawned. It is understandable that she saw the increasing use of technology as threatening the simple way of life she favoured which was based on manual labour and hand-tools, but she was not justified in attempting to transfer this fear and loathing to the Catholic faithful by inducing them to think that “the inevitability of the technological society depends on our secularism and materialism.” (p. 217) She simply identified materialism as the central causal element driving the on-going expansion of technology which, in her view, “men have conjured up out of their godlessness.”
Even more irrational is Robinson’s deterministic view of technological advances. She believed that technology creates a set of powerful forces beyond our control acting to regulate our social activity and determine its meaning. In what she termed a “mechanized society” we do not have the freedom to make a choice regarding the outcome, and so she gave the blanket warning that “technology will rule us absolutely.” (p. 217) She concluded that the only way to bring about a Christian order of society is for Catholics to initiate a revolution to eliminate all the technological inventions of the 20th century: “they should be plotting to do away with them eventually.” (p. 181) She was demanding that these boons to society be eradicated – and let us not forget that this could only be accomplished by government force – and their valuable services removed from the choices that the free market gives to consumers. It hardly needs to be pointed out that Robinson’s conclusion does not proceed logically from her premises: there are no rational grounds for opposing the development of technology beyond a pre-Industrial Revolution stage.
Robinson’s attitude to technology, echoing the world-view of Marx and his followers, was out of step with the wisdom of the Church which has for centuries been producing Catholic scientists of the highest order, even in modern times. The invention, construction and use of technological devices are an example of man using his God-given intellect in every era of history to provide solutions for previously intractable problems, besides being a testimony to his superiority over the animal kingdom.
Technological activity contributes to further scientific advances which help man in his quest towards a greater understanding of the world. These are all good reasons why the Church has never condemned modern technology as such or declared that it is based on an anti-God mentality.
Unfortunately, Robinson evinced no appreciation for the benefits of technology in the modern world, for the knowledge that has been acquired and passed on from generation to generation, for the inventions and discoveries of new sources of energy and the improvement of production processes. Nor did she celebrate the fact that every product that sustains and improves human life is made possible by the thinking and entrepreneurship of the world’s inventors and producers. In other words, she failed to give due credit to the ingenuity and inventiveness of man, to acknowledge that God has opened up the vistas of discovery for us and to thank Him for all the benefits that flow from it. So in the absence of any Church condemnation of technology, what was the real basis for Robinson’s objection to it?
It is an established fact, evidenced in the Western capitalist countries and in Japan, that technological change, when applied to industrial production, is a major factor in rapid economic growth. It was basically because the economic factor loomed so large in Robinson’s mind that anti-capitalism would explain the root cause of her technophobia – she could see that, as a direct result of investment in industry, capital could circulate and profits increase at an ever faster rate. She was staunchly opposed to both.
The Kingdom of God
When Catholics look for advice in coping with the challenges of the surrounding materialist culture, they encounter nothing but despair, pessimism and hate-mongering against Capitalism. Like all adherents of the religious Left (which include Catholic liberation theologians, fundamentalist Protestant sects and “Social Gospel” promoters) Robinson believed that God’s Kingdom could never be realized in the capitalist West. How convenient for the Socialists among them, but then, as we have seen, they have been dedicated followers of Marx while proclaiming their adherence to Gospel values.
Although Robinson made frequent allusions to God, the moral law, religious motives, spiritual development, and the “restoration of all things in Christ,” she equated these concepts with her own anti-capitalist ideology. She simply assumed that free market Capitalism, mechanization and the mass production of goods are the product of a materialistic mind and are therefore immoral and offensive to God. Eliminating them from society would be part of the purgation and purification which were prerequisite to entrance into the Kingdom of God. It would therefore be a sanctifying action. (Let us not forget that the aim of Integrity was to help Catholics turn their lives into “sacraments.”) But in reality it is a cloak for apostasy: to transpose the Catholic faith into political activism is to supernaturalize the secular domain and consequently to blur the distinction between the sacred and the profane – which was precisely the error promoted by the Worker Priests and ratified by the Second Vatican Council.
Integrity and the Worker Priest Movement
Robinson and her co-Editor, Ed Willock, were evidently in favour of the Worker Priest movement: they published in 1949 Cardinal Suhard’s seminal text, Priests Among Men, which was, and still is, regarded by the Catholic Left as the movement’s manifesto. Dorothy Day, for example, welcomed it with enthusiasm:
"Ed and Carol printed in its entirety Cardinal Suhard’s inspiring articles, Growth or Decline and Priests Among Men which we used for discussions held for a week at a time at our Maryfarm retreat house." (27)
It is not difficult to discern the main reason for Robinson’s support of this movement instigated by Cardinal Suhard to actively involve priests in the workplace: the priests involved in the experiment all operated in the name of the Catholic Church to destroy free enterprise and the market-driven economy of Capitalism.
Cardinal Suhard’s Priests Among Men set out the rationale behind the movement when he described the new role of the priest in these words:
At every moment of his life he must answer two callings and entirely satisfy each of them without ever sacrificing either . . . Transcendent yet incarnate; here is that same fundamental dualism which . . . constitutes the mystery of the Church and the paradox of Christian humanism.”
It was an innovation, a new understanding of Church and ministry, effectively changing the traditional concept of the priesthood. Whereas the Church has always honoured the priest as the man of the Mass, set apart and devoted to the worship of God in Jesus Christ, Sovereign Priest, for the salvation of souls, in the new arrangement the priest’s zeal would no longer be turned exclusively towards God but towards the world. His function would not primarily be to celebrate Mass and administer the Sacraments but to show, through his service to humanity, the presence of the Church in the world. In other words, the priest was placed in the service of two masters, his soul torn between ordination to God, the very essence of religious life, and service of the world, which is its contradiction. According to Cardinal Suhard in Growth or Decline (published by Robinson):
"We must not only be present in the world. We must work for its progress. I charge you then: go forward, work to build a new world."
The Church became steeped in this new spirit with seismic effect which, with the help of Vatican II, would decimate the ranks of the priesthood and give rise to an “empowered” laity invested with a supposedly “divine” mission to go forth and build a better world. That is where Robinson got her grand plan of the “power of Catholic Action to transform the world.” (p. 367) The idea was to arouse social awareness and promote political consciousness for an anti-capitalist revolution which would usher in the Kingdom of God on earth. It is in this area of political messianism that the true nature of Integrity’s “new synthesis of religion and life” can be seen.
Robinson’s book is evidence that her mind was definitely biased and that she was incapable of discussing things Catholic objectively. It has all the hallmarks of a propaganda blitzkrieg, representing Capitalism as a one-way street in which the rich are the exploiters and the rest of society always the victims. The book is marred by an obvious desire to argue a predetermined case. Unlike St Thomas Aquinas, the author did not pursue lines of thought for the sake of truth but for the sake of propaganda. She has employed fraudulent and manipulative arguments purportedly drawn from biblical, patristic and papal texts for the purposes of persuading Catholics to accept her political views as Gospel truths. But religious quotations and emotional appeals, however beautifully arranged on a page or expressed in fine rhetoric, have no cogency if they lack a consistent logical framework.
If Robinson had adhered to Catholic rather than to Marxist doctrine, she would have realized that overthrowing the economic system of industrial Capitalism is not a Christian imperative, still less is it a way of “restoring all things to Christ.” The Catholic answer to the question is for heads of industry and employers to carry out their duties of state, first by living according to the Gospel in their own families and professions, and then by protecting the well-being, both spiritual and temporal, of those who work under their supervision. This sort of Christian patronage operating within the capitalist system was not an option which Robinson was prepared to consider. Rather than acknowledge that Christianity can interact with and influence how industrial Capitalism can be used, she made technological advances the scapegoat for the sins of those who misuse them. She wanted to completely sweep away all the structures and institutions upon which modern society is built and return to a peasant economy based on subsistence farming and handicrafts. It was nothing less than an attempt to endorse and incite a radical subversion of the socio-economic organization of society.
The motives for this “slash and burn” policy were entirely materialistic, focussed obsessively on the accumulation of wealth through profits, preying upon people’s natural tendencies to envy, to covet, and to resent. Robinson rejected as a “misconception” the idea that “the supernatural has to work within the present social and economic framework” (p. 100) and stated that “it is useless…to practise virtue, to work hard, to save money, to be honest” in the present social and economic system. (p. 364) Instead of supporting and encouraging a Christian presence in big business, high finance and large-scale industry, she campaigned for their total elimination as enemies of the Kingdom of God.
Robinson’s argument needs to be challenged, not because we fail to acknowledge the widespread materialism of our age – which is surely self-evident – but rather because it is so question-begging. It depends entirely on evading the Christian potential of Capitalism, which is the very thing that needs to be developed.
Not only is Robinson short on common sense, but she is characteristically short on substance, logic and spiritual discernrnent. Nowhere does she challenge the reader intellectually, though she frequently tries the intelligent reader’s patience with puerile insults, hackneyed slurs, pompous moralism and short-sighted argumentation.
One of the things which Integrity has inadvertently proven is just how difficult it is for some Catholics to think beyond the assumptions of the Marxist tradition – Robinson herself never gave up her youthful brush with Socialism even after she became a Catholic. The other is that if Integrity’s aim to “blast Catholics free from materialism” through an anti-capitalist revolution – the very idea is an absurdity – were taken seriously, only strife and death would result. If profits and mass productivity are wiped out, so would the source of wealth creation that supplies the increasing need for food, shelter, clothing and various services, material and non-material, essential to the world’s growing population.
By trying to combat materialism with a materialist philosophy, Robinson was conducting a fake war and simply reinforcing materialism. It is vital that all those battling the current materialism should know that it is indeed possible for them to permeate society with Christian influences – even given the presence of widespread evils in society. But it is a battle that will be lost unless the dominance of prejudice and propaganda in our midst is challenged, and unless people are made aware, at the very least, that what they have been given to understand is Catholic social teaching is really only Marxist-inspired ideology imposed upon the Church, masquerading under the title of Catholic Action.