Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

January 9, 2007

Liberation theology

Filed under: religion,socialism — louisproyect @ 6:24 pm

(This is part 5 of a series on “Does Socialism Have a Future?”. There will be one more installment on socialism and religion after this, focusing on political Islam.)

Is Marxism hostile to liberation theology? One might get that impression from Alexander Saxton’s MRZine article (an excerpt from his book “Religion and the Human Project”) that this is so:

Marx and Engels both portrayed early Christianity as driven by the desperation of enslaved and exploited populations in the Roman empire; Engels represented the Hussites and Anabaptists as religiously inspired rebels fighting to liberate peasants from feudalism. Why might not religion then inspire working-class rebels against industrial capitalism? The fact is it has done so — a dramatic (and recent) example being that of liberation theology in Latin America.

I for one find the idea that socialists are somehow “missing the boat” when it comes to the use of religion as a weapon of struggle somewhat mystifying. As somebody who belonged to the SWP, one of the more rigidly dogmatic Marxist groups in the USA during the 1960s, I don’t recall a single attack on the African-American churches that were involved in the civil rights struggle in our party press. Nor do I recall any criticism of Martin Luther King Jr. as “mystifying” his followers with faith-based appeals. There was criticism to be sure, but it had mostly to do with King’s connections to the Democratic Party. This is not to speak of the party’s earlier support for Malcolm X, whose Muslim beliefs were never questioned.

Two years after dropping out of the SWP in 1979, I got involved with Central American solidarity and for most of the following decade, this brought me into contact with a wide range of Catholic support groups in the USA and with “liberation theology” in Nicaragua. Delegations to Nicaragua inevitably included a visit to a cathedral in Managua where services were conducted along “liberation theology” guidelines. (That being said, nobody could ever miss the fact that most of the attendees were foreigners.)

A careful reading of the socialist press will reveal very little prejudice against liberation theology, except predictably from the lunatic fringe. Take Bob Avakian for example:

I often find myself wondering: why don’t these “liberation theology” people–if they’re really interested in uprooting oppression and getting rid of poverty and standing up for the interests of the poor and oppressed and abolishing war–why don’t they give up this religious stuff? Why do they hang on to that when it’s objectively a hindrance? And the answer–or a big part of the answer–is that, to the degree that people are as yet unwilling to give this up, to make this radical rupture, it reflects the fact that they have not become convinced that these changes can be brought about or should be brought about by the actions of conscious human beings themselves. They are clinging to the idea that such changes require some sort of divine intervention or some divine rule to make this possible and to make sure it goes the right way.

Except for this unreconstructed Mao/Stalinist, I can find absolutely no evidence of any sort of pervasive and ongoing hostility to liberation theology on the left. It would be fair to say that the typical Marxist, me included, was very happy that such a trend existed even if we didn’t spend much time reading the literature or thinking a whole lot about it.

Of particular note is Fidel Castro’s embrace of religion, which was the subject of a 23 hour dialog he had with Brazilian liberation theologian Frei Betto that was published in 2006 by Ocean Press as “Fidel and Religion”. At one point, Castro states that there are “ten thousand more coincidences between Christianity and communism than between Christianity and capitalism.” However, theologian Harvey Cox can’t help but wondering in the book’s introduction whether this is only “a clever gambit by a wily and resourceful politician who knows that he needs to have Christians on his side.” One can never imagine Bob Avakian stooping to such “wily” measures.

Not only did Castro reconcile himself to liberation theology, he also opened the doors to Pope John Paul II, who had cracked down on the very leaders of the Catholic left in Latin America.. Along with Cardinal Ratzinger, the current Pope, the two had written attacks on the Catholic left and appointed rightwing flunkies as Archbishops when the opportunity arose. After Archbishop Romero was murdered by US-backed death squads in El Salvador, the Pope replaced him with Fernando Sáenz Lacalle, a member of Opus Dei and a foe of liberation theology. Shortly after becoming Archbishop, Sáenz accepted the honorary title of brigadier general from the Salvadoran armed forces.

When Pope John Paul II accepted an invitation to visit Cuba, he had already pulled back from the right. To an extent, this can be explained by the demise of Communism. Without such an enemy, he had no need to beat the drums as loudly as in the past. Instead, more and more of his energy was devoted to criticizing the abuses of capitalism. This was understandable. Since poor Catholics everywhere were being battered by the forces of globalization and neoliberalism (i.e., capitalism), he had to shift gears and give the appearance of being on their side–a move that Harvey Cox might describe as “wily”.

In 1998, long before I had begun to think about the challenge posed by Alexander Saxton, I had no problem with the Cuban government inviting the Pope. On the mailing list that preceded Marxmail, however, there were more than a couple of people who tended to think along the same lines as Bob Avakian, not the least of which was Adolfo Olaechea, the well-known supporter of the Shining Path in Peru. Olaechea denounced the trip in his trademark 1930s Moscow Trial fashion:

It is clear that come January, Castro is to show himself alongside his long sought and finally encountered Living “Marx” on Earth: The preacher Wotjila and his Sermon from Mount Havana!: Teach the ignorant, dress the naked, bury the death, feed the hungry, console the suffering, because the poor will always be with you! – that is the ideology of the Sermon of the Mount, and that, according to Castro, is what Marx would have subscribed to!.

Ours is the ideology of the revolutionary proletariat, bequathed to us by Marx and Engels, Lenin, Stalin and Chairman Mao. Ours is an ideology of revolutionary overthrow, of harnessing and organising poverty for the overthrow of opression and exploitation, not for acts of charity and the distribution of alms. What do we have in common with that ideology of consolation and “alms giving”?

We are communist fighters for the abolition of class society, not a tropical version of the Good Samaritan, nor Marxian socialism has anything in common with clerical rubbish!

I responded at the time with the following, although my formulations might be a bit less strident today (I was obviously reflecting the madhouse environment of those days.):

Finally, a word on the Pope’s trip. This one really boggles the mind. Cuba was not a particularly Catholic country even before the revolution. I had a friend named Gabriel Manfugas who fled Cuba in the mid 60s with his father, mother and brother. His dad was a sergeant in Batista’s army and served time in prison. Gabriel was a big-time anti-Communist when I first met him, but shifted to the left through arguments he heard from me and anthropology professors at CCNY.

One of the things we used to talk about a lot was “santeria”, the Afro-Cuban religion influenced by the Yoruba rituals brought to Cuba during the time of slavery. Santeria in its pure form was extremely popular in Cuba. Most Cubans are of African descent and have deep ties to the Yoruba deities. Even Gabriel’s family was in tune to these rituals, despite their nominal Catholicism. When you looked around his parent’s apartment in Washington Heights, you would see the oddest mixture of religious artifacts. Pictures of saints with herbs scotch-taped to them. Gabriel once told me that his mom prayed for him every night, but it wasn’t to Jesus that the prayers were directed. He said that he never pried into her beliefs.

However, these are typical Cuban beliefs. Cuba is not like Poland, where the Catholic Church has had a vise-like grip historically. Furthermore, the younger generation of Cubans could be less interested in going to church. They have consumerist, not Christian hang-ups.

The Pope made visits to Poland in order to prop up Solidarity, an anti-Communist outfit that many Trotskyites supported on the mistaken assumption that this had anything to do with socialism. There is no equivalent in Cuba. What the Cuban government has done is opened Cuba up to a visit from the Pope that is part of the buzzard’s trip through the Western Hemisphere. There is some good that can come of this, since a visit from the Pope will tend break down Cuba’s isolation somewhat, especially among countries with a Catholic population. Better trade relations and even some foreign aid might come about.

There is absolutely no other way to interpret this affair.

This is pretty much the way I regard any interaction with religious institutions today. If this might sound “wily”, that’s just the way I intended it for in the final analysis the only way to make sense of the relationship between religion and socialism is political. If it advances the revolution to burn down a church or two, so be it. If you need to reverse course and invite the Pope to Cuba in order to gain some breathing room, so be it. Everything else is immaterial.


  1. on the subject of Harvey Cox, have you ever come across his book The Silencing of Leonardo Boff. Fascinating insight into how Ratzinger does business (as nastily as you might expect, as it turns out)

    Comment by Jack Ray — January 11, 2007 @ 4:20 pm

  2. Lenin, you needn’t really go any further than the rather obvious fact that Marxism and Communism both found fertile ground in countries like Russia and Yugoslavia because of the anarchic-Christian Orthodox mentality over there. Especially its egalitarian notions, and the utopian vision extracted from that. Christianity and Marxism both essentially believe in the brotherhood of men.

    Comment by Dejan — January 29, 2007 @ 10:41 pm

  3. Hello,

    Hope you are well.

    I am new to you website and find it interesting.

    The whole concept of Christianity has been perverted and the original intent of Jesus has been turned completey to the opposite. ‘Light is darkness and darkness light’ is the hidden mantra of this so called Christianity.

    True Christianity has nothing to do with these so called Christians. In America this constitutes of those that have committed genocide of the Native Americans, enslaved millions of Africans in brutality, exploited the immigrant population and continue to this day to seek dominance here and world wide.

    The idea of Jesus as the ultimate revolutionary has been dismissed to make the Lord a devil of oppression.

    Mark 3:10 (talking to John the Baptist)
    And the people asked him, saying, What shall we do then? He answereth and sayeth unto them, He that hath two coats, let him impart to him that hath none; and he that hath meat, let him do likewise.”

    And this is one of hundreds of scriptures that I could quote to establish my point.

    Unfortunately most people who criticize Christianity have never bothered to investigate it to the point of reading the scriptures themselves. A perfect analogy would be accepting the depiction of Communism as would be instructed in a typical American classroom and never reading Marx, Engels, Lenin, etc.


    John Kaniecki

    Comment by john kaniecki — April 29, 2010 @ 9:09 pm

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