Heinrich Pesch & the Economics of Solidarism
NEITHER LAISSEZ-FAIRE CAPITALISM NOR STATE SOCIALISM
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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