A Close Reading of the “Tradinista Manifesto”

by Elliot Milco


Recently a group of anonymous individuals posted a document to the internet entitled “A Tradinista! manifesto.” The document intends to outline a broad political programme for the foundation of a new variety of Catholic socialism. Much more interesting things could be said, and will be said, at The Josias about this “Tradinista!” group, but for the present I would like to offer a close reading of their manifesto, simply so this document does not go unacknowledged here.

The text is included below in its entirety (in pink), with interlinear commentary (in black). I have aimed to read the document as it stands, rather than inferring positions or philosophies into it based on my familiarity with several of the anonymous authors (at least one of whom has contributed to The Josias in the past). The commentary is therefore very narrow and particular. It may not be useful to many of our readers, and is perhaps excessively pedantic.  

Still, given the anonymity of the document and its almost complete lack of context upon publication, I think the present way of looking at it is probably the most responsible. I could instead have written a counter-manifesto, or drafted a political-economic critique of what I assumed to be their positions, but the real meaning of “Tradinista!” seems to be more in style and verbiage than in substance. This much, at least, seems clear from the document they chose to publish.

You will find as you read through it that the manifesto was very roughly constructed. It lacks consistent tone, is indefatigably vague, and is somewhat lacking in intellectual coherence.  However, the intentions of the authors (some of whom are friends of The Josias) are presumably honorable (at least for the most part), and their interests are close to those of more traditional Catholic integralists, and so they merit our attention. I hope that what is said below is useful for the advancement of a sound and orthodox Catholic political philosophy.


A Tradinista! manifesto

In nomine Patris et Filii et Spiritus Sancti.

It is unclear to me why this declaration begins with the sign of the cross. In terms of genre, that would seem to mark it as either a prayer or a homily. It is admirable to invoke the Godhead in this way at the beginning of such a document, but confusing and somehow off-puttingly presumptuous.

We believe that all human institutions ought to render to every person what they are due: this is the meaning of justice.

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.

Since the end of mankind is holiness, it follows that he is due by nature the ability to move towards this end as easily as possible.

If this were the case, wouldn’t God owe it to us to make it as easy as possible for us to be holy?  And yet he paves the way to sanctity with trials and difficulties, because he loves us. (Heb 12:6; Rom 5:1-5)  

A just society, then, is one in which mankind can easily advance towards the True, Good, and Beautiful and receive aid on his quest for holiness.

No such society has ever existed on earth since the fall of man—not only because no absolutely perfect society has existed, but because the condition of human nature makes it impossible for us to attain easily to beatitude, or for any human institution to make this easy.  

Nor is this a useful description of justice as it applies to societies, since it obliterates the consideration of justice as it applies to natural relations among men and the this-worldly concerns which characterize those relations.  

Similarly, an unjust society inhibits the development of holiness and persecutes those who seek it.

By this point the nature of justice has been obscured almost completely behind vague talk about man’s last end as it relates to vague “institutions.” What is justice concretely, as it relates to particular dues and relationships? This has not been discussed at all.

We are a small party of young Christian socialists committed to traditional orthodoxy, to a politics of virtue and the common good, and to the destruction of capitalism, and its replacement by a truly social political economy. Our program is summarized in the following 20 points.

I note that the authors of the document describe themselves as “Christian socialists” rather than “socialist Christians.” It’s unclear what was intended by this, but if we take them at their word, the priority is given to socialism, of which Christianity is a modification, rather than the reverse. This may not be what is intended, of course.

1. Jesus Christ is the way, and the truth, and the life, who became man for the salvation of all.
We believe in the authority and teachings of Christ, entrusted to His Church. We invite all in sympathy with our beliefs and goals to join us, as our project concerns the common good of all humanity.

A good start.

2. Political authority ought to promote the teachings of the Church.
We recognize the social kingship of Christ, and all people are subject to him by His very essence and power. While the polity has a positive obligation to facilitate the salvation of its citizens, it should not compel them to become Christian. The polity is autonomous, though not perfectly separated from, the Church.

That the authors recognize the social kingship of Christ is admirable. That they conclude that “the polity” (presumably the government of a society) has an obligation to facilitate the salvation of its citizens is also admirable. The meaning of the autonomy of “the polity” relative to the Church is unclear. Do the authors mean that the government of society ought not to be subject to the decrees of the Church?

3. The goal of political authority is to create a good and virtuous people.
The law is a teacher and always promotes a particular conception of the good; morally-neutral laws are therefore impossible. The essence of government is to lead citizens to virtue and societies to the highest of the natural common goods. All law and policy must aim at the common good, not at private interest.

The confusion between natural and supernatural indicated in the opening lines of the document recurs here. The authors seem to fail to distinguish adequately between the supernatural end of man and the natural goods to which he may attain (individually or communally) in the present life. Similarly they say both that all human institutions are obligated to facilitate the sanctification of mankind, and that the “essence” (meaning “end”?) of government is to lead citizens (meaning “those governed”?) to the highest natural common good. No doubt something correct is intended in all of this, but the exposition is confused. If one wants to invoke such high-minded notions, one should have a clearer sense of their place and what one wants to say about them.

4. Political authority must be decentralized as far as possible.
The principle of subsidiarity requires us to assign to lower associations the tasks they can realistically perform; but some tasks can be done only at a federal level.

Here the authors endorse the principle of subsidiarity in government, but assume the existence of a “federal” level. Does this mean that they endorse government at higher levels by federations rather than by a unitary sovereign? What sort of federations? Federations of small states? Of workers’ soviets? As we proceed, the insistence on these federations seems to be important. And yet they are never described in the remainder of the document.

Since the modern nation-state is an instrument of the capitalist class, a radical decentralization of political authority is possible only with the abolition of capitalism.

This sentence includes several vague and controversial claims. First off, we do not know what “the modern nation-state” refers to. Which variety of modern nation state? What are its identifying characteristics? This class of states is apparently inimical to decentralized government by the sort of federations the authors desire. (Would a united federation of small governments not constitute a “modern nation-state”?) But in their reasoning here, the line of causation seems to run from “the capitalist class” through “the modern nation-state” to whatever the ends of the capitalists are. The authors wish to destroy “the modern nation-state” because it is centralized (and the centralization of authority is bad per se in their eyes—an odd position for a Catholic to hold), and therefore take up arms against “the capitalist class” because these capitalists will not allow them to decentralize. It is very difficult to understand how the political/economic picture described in this line can be correct when the decentralization of government is one of the most common aspirations of the capitalist class.

5. Economic life should be ordered to the common good.
Although almsgiving and private charity are commanded by God, they are insufficient to carry out all of the requirements of justice. The polity has the duty of preventing and rectifying economic injustices, thereby fostering the well-being of citizens.

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. They have quoted him: “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the father except through me.” Because the authors have chosen to obscure the distinction between natural justice as it pertains to the present life and the justification and sanctification necessary for salvation, their appeals for economic justice become incoherent.

6. Capitalism must be abolished.
The foundational relation of capitalist society is between those who are compelled to sell their labor-power on pain of destitution and those who, by their ownership of capital, are enabled to exploit the former. Since it is premised on workers’ lack of economic freedom, this structurally-unjust relation must be eliminated; and in doing so, the capitalist class – which serves its own ends, detrimental to the common good of society – will also be done away with.

Terms in need of clarification: “capitalist society”, “exploit”, “economic freedom”, “structurally-unjust”, “capitalist class”, the ends of the capitalist class. This paragraph sounds radical and impressive on the first reading, but the document has given us so little to go on in interpreting it that it could mean any of a very wide range of things, from an endorsement of radical Marxism, to an endorsement of a moderate progressive democratic platform a la Bernie Sanders. Which is it? This breadth of interpretive possibilities neuters the text. We do not know what the authors are really talking about.

7. Class society must be erased.
Class struggle is a fact of contemporary life and flows directly from the injustices of capitalist society.

Again, we do not know what the authors mean by “class struggle”. Are the only classes they recognize the classes of capitalists and laborers? This is naive. We do not live in some idealized industrial society. Clerics, professionals, academics, and technicians of various sorts make up a very large portion of the American population, and are not evidently members of either an oppressed labor class or an exploitative capitalist class. While many people are no doubt exploited by their employers and are stuck in impossible economic situations because of the structure of the market, at the same time economic, political, and religious “classes” have a reality independent of that fact and a socio-political import that extends far beyond the maintenance of a system of capitalist exploitation.  

As Christians, we support the struggle of all oppressed people against the exploitative class war being waged against them.

The postulation of an outright class war “being waged against” oppressed people suggests a degree of malice that is not warranted in reality. By asserting that such a war exists, the authors of this document are falling into the evil mindset which was carried into action by the Bolsheviks. If there is a war, then we must fight.  If lives are being taken and oppressed, then we must return violence with violence.  If the means of production are the instruments of warfare, then we must seize them.  If there are casualties, so be it—it’s a war, after all, and (apparently) a “just” one.  

By condemning this mindset, I do not mean to say that the structure of certain capitalist markets does not tend toward injustice, but the notion that “the capitalist class” is out for the workers is absurd. And finally, how do the authors mean to support the struggle of the oppressed? What do they intend to do? Surely there are more deliberate and sane resolutions to these problems than declaring that a war exists between two parts of society.

This struggle is fundamentally a genuinely universal effort, founded in solidarity, for a just society based on the common good, precisely because the capitalist class serves only its own sectarian interest.

The phrase “…fundamentally a genuinely universal effort” is unclear. As the text proceeds, “the capitalist class” morphs more and more into a hidden monster to which all evil can be attributed.

The means of class struggle, peaceful if possible, must respect basic moral norms and fundamental human dignity.

Note that what I said above about the tendency toward violence is confirmed in the qualification about the means of “class struggle”, “peaceful if possible”. This is followed by some contentless guff about “moral norms” and “human dignity”, which could mean anything or nothing.

8. Livelihood should not depend on the market.
Markets are not unjust in themselves, but they become vehicles of exploitation when people must sell their labor-power on the market in order to survive.

“For even when we were with you, we gave you this command: If anyone is not willing to work, neither should he eat.” 2 Thess 3:10.  

The language of “labor-power” and “exploitation” sounds impressive but again (as in so many cases throughout the document thus far) the language of the authors obscures their meaning.

So, while citizens should be free to engage in market exchange, the polity should ensure that no basic needs – food, clothing, shelter, healthcare, etc. – go unmet, guaranteeing a livelihood independent of the market.

This much is fair. It would be much better to assert it without the distracting pretentiousness of “labor-power” and “vehicles of exploitation”.

9. Every person has a right to property.
Private property is a basic feature of human society; nevertheless, the right to property is not unconditional, and ownership is justified only if it serves the common good. Complementing private property should be a combination of a new commons (knowledge, land) and widely-democratized productive property, and the polity must ensure that private ownership, unlike in its bourgeois form, is not used in exploitative ways.

It may be that the authors of this decree are not the sorts of people who visit public libraries. Nonetheless information “commons” exist there, and have existed for some time. (The institution of the public library has always played this role in the United States.) As for agricultural (?) commons, it is unclear what the function of such spaces would be, since the labor-cost of food as sold in markets falls far below the labor-cost of food grown by oneself on a small scale (except in large cities, where the creation of such commons would be impossible).  

By what means is the democratization of productive property supposed to happen? Surely not by the agency of a powerful, central government, of the sort the authors despise. But then how? And how is “the polity” supposed to guarantee that private property is not used for exploitation? Is this at all possible? The authors are describing a political-economic chimera based on contradictory impulses.

10. Worker cooperatives should be strongly encouraged.
Centralized and monopolized private ownership of means of production must give way to control by the political community.

If any readers had any illusion that the political-economic programme given here was based on the notion of “justice” set out in the early portion of this document, it should by now be completely swept away. The authors are advocating state ownership of the means of production (natural resources, factories, fuel). They want to decentralize the ownership of means of production by centralizing them under state ownership. The contradiction in impulses is mind-boggling. Furthermore, they have not yet made clear why the private ownership of the means of production is intrinsically unjust, except by impugning the “capitalist class” and claiming that the capitalists are at war with everyone else.

At the same time, the polity should not directly run small- or mid-sized enterprises, leaving these to be owned and managed – as far as possible – on a worker-cooperative basis. More equitable and non-exploitative work relations within firms will result.

I find it hard to accept the total prioritization of co-ops over sole proprietorship. We seem to have passed clean over from political programme into socialist dreamscape.

11. Racism, misogyny, homophobia, transphobia, and similar forms of oppression must be eradicated.
These may manifest themselves as subjective attitudes, but they are primarily and fundamentally structural and material barriers to equality. Both forms of oppression must be fought. Justice demands that we stand with those unfairly excluded from political and economic life, and to demand their full integration into society.

Given the choice not to define or describe “racism, misogyny, homophobia, transphobia” etc., we are left to assume that these words are used in their ordinary and current meaning. Otherwise, this paragraph (like most of the preceding paragraphs) is vague and effectively meaningless. But assuming that they are meant in their ordinary way, it is unclear to me how “transphobia” could be a form of oppression in any frame of mind that proceeds from the Gospel, as the authors claim to, or views justice in light of the eternal destiny of man.  The manifesto has really gone off the deep end here. What does this have to do with anything else under discussion? What ideology is motivating this?

12. Marriage and family life should be specially supported by the polity to promote the common good.
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.

At this point I’m developing an image of a dozen or so people logged into a single Google document, adding random paragraphs to the text, without much concern for their tone, intellectual coherence, or integration into a polished whole. Good for whoever wrote this paragraph, which is excellent, but I’d be shocked if it was written by the person who wrote the previous one.

13. Abortion is a horrifying crime which must be eradicated immediately.
We insist on the right to life from conception to natural death; all innocent human lives must be protected. While prohibiting abortion, the polity should simultaneously provide abundantly for the material security of mothers. No one should face economic hardship because of having a child.

Another good paragraph.

14. Anthropogenic climate change threatens the common good of all mankind, and must be fought.
It is indisputable that climate change has man-made causes. Given its increasingly manifest and obviously dangerous consequences, especially for the indigenous peoples and the poor, it must be halted.

How?  By the orchestration of workers’ collectives in their mysterious federations, which own everything?  By the agency of the ever-mysterious “polity”?

15. We reject nationalism and the nation-state.
Our respect for the well-being of others does not depend on their nationality, and the nation-state, corrupted by its bureaucratic structure, has proven itself incompetent in facing modern challenges of climate change, terrorism, drug cartels, migration, and – above all – global capitalism. We nevertheless support struggles against colonialism and imperialism, and advocate a genuine international authority governed by Christian principles to prevent the exploitation of one country by another.

A lot of hot air. Of course the authors condemn the corruption of the nation state by its bureaucratic structure (whatever that means), and of course they can produce a laundry list of problems in modern society. But do we have any reason to believe that their anarcho-socialist utopia will fare any better with any of these problems? None whatsoever.

16. Warfare is justified only by careful moral analysis.
It is of paramount importance for societies to show genuine restraint and moral conscience in the face of the decision to use military force. Given the nature of modern weaponry, it’s difficult to imagine that any war today, offensive or defensive, could satisfy the traditional requirements of the Church’s just war theory. The primary intrinsic good of a polity is peace, and peace must always be the norm by which war is judged.

The heading here tells me, “You can go to war, but only after you do a careful moral analysis!” Does analyzing things make them just?  Societies have to have restraint and moral conscience. But how can a society at large have restraint? The paragraph seems to want to come out in a pacifist direction, but it manages to say virtually nothing, and what it does say is quite permissive.

17. All societies should generously welcome migrants fleeing hardship.
In memory of the Holy Family’s exile in Egypt, the Church has always shown a special solicitude for the plight of migrants. The care of migrants is a matter of natural justice – not charity – and we demand that political societies reflect the Church’s solicitude.

Well said. There are obviously further considerations in practice, though.

18. In everything possible, we stand with the poor and the marginalized.
Our politics are animated entirely by a concern for the poor: the victim, the sick, the hungry, the homeless, the ignorant, the sinner. Seeing the face of Christ in the least among us, we focus on these as the aim and measure of our politics.

It seems a little late to assert that the politics involved here are “entirely motivated” by anything, given the large number of interests already enumerated, and the pride of place given to the vague, spiritual notion of “justice” at the top. The authors have already told us that the measure of justice, and the aim of all political authority, is the pursuit of sanctification. Now they’re saying the only thing they care about is the poor, and this is the aim and measure of their politics. The seams are showing. It would be amusing to perform some source criticism on this text, to show the diverging “communities” which participated in its construction. One might name them, just for fun, “The Princetonians”, “The Twitter Collective”, and “The Friends of Mankind”. But now I am getting silly.

19. We strive toward a genuine polity animated by Christian socialist principles.
We recognize the value of small-scale political organizations as intermediate to our ultimate ends. But we also realize that our highest common goods can only be achieved in a polity, and it is precisely such polities, governed by principles like those articulated here, that we would seek to establish.

Apparently small-scale political organizations (like workers’ co-ops?) are not the goal, but a “polity” is. We still don’t know precisely what they mean by the word “polity”, but there seems to be something special behind it, given how intentionally they use the term.

20. Liberalism is failed, and we must move beyond it.
We reject the prevailing ideology, political systems, and political economy of the contemporary West. The history of the liberal political project is the history of the justification of racist and imperialist oppression; of the exploitation and control of wage-labor; of the estrangement of politics from truth, beauty, and goodness; of the corrosion of sound faith.

I do hope that we are moving beyond liberalism. It does seem to be failing. But the main accusations leveled against liberal politics seem to be fairly implausible. Is the history of the liberal political project a history of “the justification of racist and imperial oppression”? This doesn’t accord with the principles of either of the two great liberal Revolutions. Is it really about the exploitation and control of wage-labor? I don’t think so. 

On the other hand, with respect to the estrangement of politics from truth, the authors are correct. And today, with the urgent liberal push toward relativistic multiculturalism, it is certainly the case that sound faith is being dissolved.

All that said, we have a problem here again—what do the authors mean to reject when they cast aside “the prevailing ideology, political systems, and political economy of the contemporary West”? That’s a rather large and variegated set of items. I confess that while I know, (through personal acquaintance) what some of the authors of this manifesto mean when they reject liberal politics, I do not know what the first sentence of this paragraph intends at all.

The promises of liberalism have repeatedly been shown to be empty lies, and we reject them outright. It fails on its own terms as well as ours.

Again, what does this actually mean?

It is the great evil of modern times, the disease spreading its corruption through every part of human social life, the addiction posing as the solution to the problems that it causes.

If this were the sort of manifesto that had some fire in it, that really motivated its readers to jump out of their seats and rally to the cause, then this line would have a place. It is not, and so the line comes across as a strained exaggeration. But maybe we’re building up to the finale.

Liberalism in religion undermines the truths of God’s revelation, substituting private opinion for the authority of God, and reducing the truths of the Faith to the categories of positivistic or historicist “science.”

Amen to that!

Liberalism in politics denies the reality of the good, reducing political freedom to perverse license. It therefore denies the primacy of the common good, and reduces politics to the procedural balancing of private interests. Liberalism in political economy severs earthly goods from their order to the end of human life, thus giving free reign to pleonexia and the exploitation of the poor.

It’s only just getting good, and it’s about to end!

We Tradinistas are determined to combat liberalism by all honorable means.

“All honorable means,” but none are actually specified. And, as noted above, honorable means seem not to exclude violent means.

Therefore we urge all Catholics and other Christians to join us in rejecting the evils of modernism, of liberalism, of capitalism – and forging a new political life beyond them.

Amen.

So it was a prayer?