Toward a Civilization of Work – Henri Bartoli (1952)

We have tolerated the existence of inhuman social conditions, we have sometimes covered up their disgrace with the name of God, and we cry shame because the Church has lost the working classes. How can a man struggle to save his soul when his whole life tends to deprive him of the knowledge that he has a soul to save? How can the victims of our affluent society feel anything but deep resentment for the Christian world and Christian doctrine when they discover all too often that the Church and the rich are in collusion?

Legislation cannot effect a transfer of power from capital to labor in our society. Many existing laws are not enforced. In spite of the laws enacted in 1945 and 1946, there are many enterprises with more than fifty employees which have no workers’ committees.

In many concerns the workers have no representatives. In too many factories, overtime is paid at the regular rate, the higher rate provided by law is not applied, and offenders can not be punished.The freedom of trade-unionism has been proclaimed, it is true, but the actual conditions of hiring, promotion, and firing constitute pressure against activists, who are often persecuted in the name of anticommunism.

If the ratio of salaries to national income is now about the same as in 1938, it is not due to social security but to longer working hours. Because their hourly wage is so low, furnace workers put in seventy-two hours every other week and maintenance. shifts work thirteen days on end, with one Sunday off every fourteen days. Thirty-seven vat workers out of forty in Toulouse resort to clandestine work in order to balance their budgets. As for North African workers, they are usually paid far less than the regular wage and their housing is an insult to God and humanity. The minimum wage is calculated so rigorously that it includes, for instance, the purchase of one warm overcoat and its equivalent every six years, and lodgings devoid of individual water outlets.*

Do not say that a “strong” government could correct abuses. No arbitration is possible between capital and labor. Even when political and economic power are more closely bound together than ever before, we cannot expect from the state decisions that take into consideration the interests of both capital and labor….

As Economie et Humanisme** declared: “Short of turning renegade, capitalism cannot become philanthropic…. No matter how advanced the state it is in, a study of capitalism will show it doomed to failure or inhumanity. We are in a terrible dilemma which leaves us no choice but to create a new system in a society as yet unknown.”…

Our task is to fight for the age of labor, since history and faith demand it. We should constantly remember that history is made by free men acting concert, and freedom must refashion its structures as well as its conditions. We are not being asked to give into events, but to bear witness….I am convinced that the science of economics should be ruthlessly scrutinized, exposing its lies and its alienations, and then built up anew, with labor as its starting point and its primary values the liberation of workers of work itself….

The primary requisite for the establishment of a society truly founded on the recognition of labor is that this society grow out of the worker’ own actions–that is, from the action of labor, farmers, and intellectuals.

The numerous attempts at interpreting the historical phenomenon of the intellectuals have clearly shown that throughout history their part has been to give homogeneity, a conscience, and the means of expression to the various social groups which make his history. It is a fact, sociologists are inclined to admit that if social classes cannot be defined precisely, it is above all because they can be known and understood only in their movement. Capitalism builds in the midst of society the permanent basis for what Leo XII called a “dangerous conflict.” To refuse to see this conflict in terms of history would be side-stepping the issue. We must, on the contrary, discover the categories defining  the genesis of the antagonistic classes, and the internal and profoundly human law that governs it.

The emergence of the classes at odds within the capitalistic system has been perverted on an enormous scale; yet these classes offer fruitful ground for the incarnation of brotherly love. Without any illusion that the proletariat has some kind of messianic role to play, we recognize that is called to bear witness against the rule of money and for the emancipation of labor. The coming age of labor will have the features of the movements which are shaping it. Some of us have been asked to be be present in these movements in order to serve them. All of us are asked to join in the future with them, even if our task is only to be their witness in our own environment.

Let no one object that, be underlining the temporal role of Christians, we are ignoring eschatology for the sake of historical time. Eschatology alone gives history a meaning by endowing it with an end, but what can an eschatology be that is not already present in time? …***

The primary sense of the Messiah’s work is to “bring forth justice to the nations” (Isaiah 42:1). Messianic first means historical. Justice, freedom and love are not Platonist ideas but initiatives taken by God in history through the events of salvation. It is not moral values that are eternal but their inexhaustible source–that is, God….

Christianity must insert itself into the very organization of the economy, saturate its structures and its institutions….

When we co-operate with the protests of workers who will not be treated like goods, or of the proletarians against the conditions which capitalism has meant for them, we are not being unfaithful but are choosing a religion of incarnation rather than evasion.

When bread and wine become the sustenance of the community in the Eucharist, it is the spirit that is given to us,, beyond death and resurrection. Then it is that we receive our mission. We go back to our work, but it is done with the Spirit, and the temporal world becomes finer material for new sacrifices.

To experience the Mass is to experience eschatology. If we knew how to look at the Host, we should see in it the toil of our brothers. Without “the food which perishes” there would be no “food which endures to eternal life” (John 6:27). Can we let labor continue in bondage?

* Cf. “La mise en application de la loi du fevrier 1950,” in Revue française du travail, September-October, 1950
** Cahiers de’economie humaine, No. 4, 1951, pp. 40 ff. Economie et Humanisme is an economic research group founded by Father L. J. Lebret, O.P., which has done pioneering work in many poor countries.


[Original source: Henri Bartoli, “Les chrétiens vers une civilisation du travail,” Esprit (July 1952), pp. 20-25.]
[Translation found in The Catholic Avant-Garde: French Catholicism Since World War II – edited by Jean-Marie Domenach and Robert de Montvalon, pg. 158-161]