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Heinrich Pesch & the Economics of Solidarism


By Rupert J. Ederer | November 1986
Rupert J. Ederer is Professor of Economics Emeritus at the State University College at Buffalo, in New York. He is currently translating Pesch’s 3,800-page Lehrbuch into English.

Heinrich Pesch is probably the greatest economist who has ever lived. The ironic fact that he is little known is a commentary on our times and the state of the economic science rather than on the man. This German Jesuit scholar wrote the longest, most exhaustive economics text that any­one has written, and it deserves to be regarded as a kind of Summa Economica. The five-volume Lehrbuch der Nationalökonomie examines all serious economic thinking up until Pesch’s time, culling out what is deficient, retaining what is worthwhile, and filling in what its author perceived to be lack­ing. The result is a design for an economic system that is opposed to both classically liberal capitalism and state socialism, based instead on Aristotelian-Thomistic philosophical premises. Pesch called this system of thought solidarism. He designed it in full conformity with the moral natural law. Although it was sometimes characterized (and criticized) as Christian or Catholic economics, it could be described as such only in the same sense as one would use the expression “Christian philosophy.” It is economics in total harmony with the teachings of the Catholic Church about Christianity. Perhaps the most incisive comment one might make about solidarist economics would be to state that if Ger­many had listened to Pesch’s prescription for eco­nomic reform during the 1920s, the dark night of Adolf Hitler would never have happened!

Heinrich Pesch was born in Cologne, Germa­ny, on September 17, 1854. He died in Valkenburg, Holland, on April 1, 1926. During that span of not quite 72 years he combined with his exem­plary life as a Jesuit priest many years of extraord­inary, productive scholarship. Pesch began his uni­versity studies at Bonn. After he entered the Jesuit order in 1876, he went through the intensive regi­men required by that order, and that included for him periods in Holland, Austria, Luxembourg, and England. It was during his theological studies in England — absence from Germany being forced by the Bismarckian repression of Jesuits — that Pesch was able to see firsthand the social devastation lib­eral capitalism wrought among the working classes. The experience is what prompted the young stu­dent to dedicate his life to doing what he could to improve the lot of the common working people.

Although the provincial of his order had in­tended to have him go on studying to become a professor of theology, Pesch successfully pleaded his case for studies in economics. While still a the­ology student, he began to probe the so-called Soziale Frage — the great social question of the time, namely, how to alleviate the plight of the working classes in the laissez-faire capitalist milieu of the late 19th century. Later he was assigned to co-edit with his brother, the renowned philosopher Tilmann Pesch, the prestigious journal Stimmen aus Maria Laach. He published 71 significant articles in it over a 28-year period. There were also assign­ments in various parts of Europe, including Vienna and Holland, before he was assigned to be spiritual advisor in the seminary of the Diocese of Mainz — a happy coincidence! There the Jesuit scholar dwelt in the same house in which the great pioneer of Catholic social teaching, Bishop Wilhelm Em­manuel von Ketteler, had lived; it was there that Pesch wrote his important two-volume work Liberalismus, Sozialismus und Christliche Gesellschaftsordnung (Liberalism, Socialism, and Chris­tian Social Order), which he described as an exer­cise in philosophical sociology. His studies in ethics and moral theology had convinced him of the rele­vance of morality for economic life. That set him on a course that was contrary to the positivistic or­ientation that the social sciences, including eco­nomics, were taking by that time.

It was as a mature man of 47 that Pesch sub­sequently resumed university studies in economics at the University of Berlin. Following completion of these studies he was assigned to a residence for scholars, which the German Jesuit province had established in Luxembourg, and it was there that he published the first volume of his Lehrbuch in 1905. The other four volumes were written from his post in Berlin-Marienfeld, where he served as the resident chaplain in an institute for homeless girls. The five-volume Lehrbuch went through sev­eral editions in Pesch’s lifetime, and the material in it is still for the better part relevant to the econom­ic science in our own time.

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