Christians & the class struggle

Examining Liberation Theology
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In August 1984, and again in April 1986, liberation theology hit the front pages of the world's newspapers. Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, the controversial prefect of the Vatican Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, issued two instructions that either explicitly or implicitly criticized liberation theologians.

The second was more positive than the first. Far, far too long, repetitive, and abstract, it made one yearn for the day when seminaries will insist that degrees in theology will be awarded only to those who have passed a Good Writing course. But in effect it justified the New York Times headline [April 6, 1986]: "Vatican Backs Struggle by Poor to End Injustice." The negative part followed in the subhead: "But Document also Sees New Forms of Slavery."

Neither instruction quoted or mentioned any liberation theologians. Not so understandable was the failure to quote Marx, especially when Ratzinger, in the first instruction, made such sweeping generalizations as this: "Atheism and the denial of the human person, his liberty and his rights, are at the core of Marxist theory." A case could be made for the statement, but it should be made.

Another weakness of the first instruction was the false impression that absolute pacifism is part of Catholic teaching, that violence in pursuit of justice is never justified. Fortunately, this was corrected in the second instruction. Someone must have reminded Ratzinger that Paul VI, true to the teaching of Aquinas, had written in 1967 that "a revolutionary uprising" could be justified "where there is manifest, longstanding tyranny which would do great damage to fundamental personal rights and dangerous harm to the common good of the country" (Populorum Progressio, 30 and 31).

In fact, any number of Latin American countries may have qualified as such tyrannies. You have to ask yourself, "'if I lived in such a country, and I were young and healthy, shouldn't I be out there in the bush with the guerrillas, fighting to free the people from hunger and oppression?" And a second question: "If I didn't have the courage to join the guerrillas, would I have the right to complain very bitterly because those who did have the courage also had some crazy Marxist-Leninist ideas which they proceeded to implement once the tyrant had been overthrown?"

Bitterly perhaps, but not very bitterly.

Karl Popper, sitting safely somewhere in England, once gave this excellent advice to revolutionaries: "The use of violence is justified only under a tyranny which makes reforms without violence impossible, and it should have only one aim -- to bring about a state of affairs which makes reforms without violence possible."

But then, Popper did not live in Latin America, waiting half a lifetime for an honest election, then see a man elected who had promised "reforms without violence" and watch him either: (a) sell out to the rich and the military, or (b) if he meant business, be replaced by the military in behalf of the rich, often with the overt or covert assistance of the United States of America, leaving hunger and oppression precisely where they were before. Small wonder that "reformism" and "compromise" and "democracy" (usually with the prefix "bourgeois") and "United States of America" have become dirty words in Latin America and frequently appear so in the writings of liberation theologians.

All this being cheerfully, or sadly, admitted, one must also admit that there is ground for criticizing liberation theology. And let us take the best of its representatives, Gustavo Gutierrez, a Peruvian priest who in 1971 published what is still regarded as its Magna Carta, A Theology of Liberation. More than any other person Gutierrez has been responsible for yanking the attention of us comfortable, complacent Christians of the North and forcing us to focus on the misery of the South, compelling us to consider to what extent we share in responsibility for that misery. He has also done more than any other person to place the question of Christian socialism on the agenda of the Catholic church and the whole contemporary world.

Gutierrez has been responsible for yanking the attention of us comfortable, complacent Christians of the North and forcing us to focus on the misery of the South, compelling us to consider to what extent we share in responsibility for that misery.

Let us focus on the question of Marxism, since that is where Cardinal Ratzinger laid special stress. In 1976 a Methodist missionary in Peru named Dow Kirkpatrick interviewed Gutierrez for the Christian Century:

KIRKPATRICK: What are the main principles of Marxism which liberation theology finds useful?

GUTIERREZ: I would make the question more precise. I don't believe that liberation theology needs to decide which aspects are important in Marxism. Liberation theology does not evaluate the Christian and non-Christian in Marxism. [Marxism] provides an analysis of the surrounding reality for Christians and non-Christians alike in the struggle for freedom.

Actually, Gutierrez himself, in the last sentence of his response, has decided that Marxist analysis is an important and valuable aspect of Marxism. But let us ignore this and extract a few Marxist notions from his writing to consider whether, in fact, they do provide "an analysis of the surrounding reality" which might prove useful in "the struggle for freedom."

In chapter 10 of A Theology of Liberation there is a series of beautiful reflections on the Gospel, particularly on the Parable of the Good Samaritan and the vision of the Last Judgment (Matthew 25:31-46). This is Gutierrez at his best. He concludes from the commandment to feed, clothe, and shelter Christ in the poor that there is a political obligation involved:

Charity is today a "political charity," according to the phrase of Pius XII. Indeed, to offer food or drink in our day is a political action; it means the transformation of a society structured to benefit a few who appropriate to themselves the value of the work of others. This transformation ought to be directed toward a radical change in the foundation of society, that is, the private ownership of the means of production.

And what is this radical change? It is the total elimination of private ownership. Lest we think that Gutierrez may have changed his mind since he wrote the book in 1971 or saw it published by Orbis Books in 1973, consider a statement from his Power of the Poor in History in 1983:

[The] revolutionary struggle..questions the existing social order in its very roots and insists on the involvement of popular power in the construction of a society of genuinely equal and free persons. It insists on a society in which private ownership of the means of production is eliminated, because private ownership of the means of production allows a few to appropriate the fruits of the labor of many, and generates the division of society into classes, whereupon one class exploits another. It insists on a society in which, by appropriating the means of production, the masses appropriate their own political management as well, and definitive freedom, thereby occasioning the creation of a new social consciousness (pp. 37-38).

The first sentence and the declarative part of the second sentence seem to refer to the revolutionary struggle in Latin America, but the rest of the second sentence, the rationale for all the rest, is clearly for Gutierrez, as it was for Marx, a universal principle. This is extraordinary, for Latin America's economy is primarily agricultural and what the Latin American peasants, or the vast majority anyway, want is a piece of land of their own. There is no question about that. And I have yet to see a plea by Gutierrez or any other liberation theologian for the right of the peasant to own land, free from the fear of expropriation by the state.

Let me pursue the point by reference to the founding convention of Christians for Socialism at Santiago, Chile, in 1972. This convention was composed largely of Latin American priests, and the final document was written by a committee that included Gutierrez and two other prominent liberation theologians, Hugo Assman, a German priest who has worked in Brazil and Costa Rica, and an Italian priest, Giulio Girardi.

The document nowhere mentions the peasants, even as "farm laborers," but there are many references to "the proletariat" and "the working class." The large Chilean delegation came in with a report that does mention the peasants, but mainly to rebuke the peasants because they are "attached to the ownership of land," a value that is "part and parcel of the dominant bourgeois ideology." This document also rebukes "many segments of the proletariat" because "they have been led astray by a tradition of labor unionism that is economics-oriented." No kidding. (Quotes from Christians and Socialism, Orbis, 1975, p. 78.)

Liberation theologians, including Gutierrez, make a point of contrasting their method, which, they say, proceeds inductively from "the praxis of the poor" toward theoretical conclusions, with the deductive methods of European theologians, who allegedly impose their theoretical conclusions from above onto the praxis of the poor. I suggest that liberation theologians, including Gutierrez, are doing precisely the kind of thing they accuse the European theologians of doing. They are imposing the European abstractions, or conclusions, of Karl Marx onto the Latin American peasant whose actual "praxis" cries out for his own land and by no means wants to be submerged in some collective farm owned and operated by the state, exchanging one landlord for another who is even more powerful and impersonal.

I have yet to see a plea by Gutierrez or any other liberation theologian for the right of the peasant to own land, free from the fear of expropriation by the state.

Let us review some of Marx's abstractions. He insisted that "wages and private property are identical" and that the only way the workers could ever enjoy "real human life" and rid themselves of alienation, estrangement, and "all the muck of ages," was to make a revolution that would do away with private property and the wage relationship so that we could all "hunt in the morning, fish in the afternoon, rear cattle in the evening, criticize after dinner, just as [we] have a mind, without ever becoming hunter, fisherman, shepherd, or critic" (cf. Marx's "Economic and Political Manuscripts of 1844," pp. 65, 66, 98, and "The German Ideology," pp. 124, 157, in The Marx-Engels Reader, ed. Robert C. Tucker, Norton, 1972).

In the process, you see, division of labor, another enslaving phenomenon, would also be done away with because, as Marx confidently assured us,' 'private property and division of labor are identical expressions." Of course, Marx did not live to, enjoy life in the Soviet Union or other Marxist countries where wages and division of labor exist very happily, or unhappily, without private property.

If all this seems rather foolish, that is because it is, and we can't begin to understand why it is so foolish until we rip away the veil of illusion that has been draped over the figure of Karl Marx and has persuaded so many smart people that because he was a genius; because he could write so profoundly about Hegel and Feuerbach; because he could turn out a good, readable history of the 1848 Revolution and the Paris Commune; because he could fill three unreadable volumes with statistics about the horrors of English capitalism in the nineteenth century and murky theories about surplus value, sliding back and forth between a formula based on subsistence wages and another based on actual wages, theories that altogether were not as clarifying as the medieval notions of just wage/just profit/just price; because he had some valuable insights about the pervasive power of the economic factor; because finally -- give him credit -- he was consumed with a great, burning hatred of injustice and knew how to communicate it to others in a flaming phrase, that therefore -- therefore -- he really knew the life of men and women working in the world.

He did not. He suffered from Godwin's Disease. I call it Godwin's Disease after William Godwin, a philosophical anarchist and father-in-law of the poet Shelley, about whom the British historian Alexander Gray wrote, "Never was there anyone who was more entirely the embodiment of intellect and reason... It follows from this peculiarly intellectual bias that he was utterly destitute of common sense." Intellectuals themselves have a word for it, reductionism, but it only covers one part of the full, deadly pathology.

Take, for example, those absurdities about private property and wage labor. Marx probably never worked for a wage in his entire life, but two minutes of careful thought should have reminded him that the wage relationship is just one more power relationship among thousands, not as common or as potentially abusive as the husband-wife relationship or the parent-child relationship, but very common and potentially very abusive, or subject to abuse. Actually, the wage relationship can be, and often has been, abused by wage-earners, as in the case of powerful, shortsighted unions that force employers to pay unjustly high wages, thereby forcing consumers to pay unjust prices, and sometimes forcing employers out of business and union members into unemployment.

Let us concede that in the case of Marx in England in the nineteenth century, or Gutierrez in Peru in the twentieth, the abuse of wage relationships was and is so common that there would naturally be a temptation to believe that if one could only do away with it, injustice and alienation might perish from the earth. But how? By making the state the universal employer? No chance. Jean Jaures, the great French non-Marxist socialist who was assassinated for his anti-war stand in 1914, had enough common sense to see that. He wrote:

Delivering men to the state, conferring upon the government the effective direction of the nation's work, giving it the right to direct all the functions of labor, would be to give a few men a power compared to which that of the Asiatic despot is nothing, since their power stops at the surface of society and does not regulate economic life.

Michael Harrington put it more succinctly when he reminded us that "any fool can nationalize." Of course, you could replace the individual employer or corporation with a workers' or peasants' cooperative, so that the workers, or peasants, on the basis of one-person-one-vote, instead of the capitalists' one-share-one-vote, elect the board of directors. This is a much better idea than ownership by the state because it is real economic democracy, and the best short definition of socialism is the extension of democratic process from the political to the economic sphere.

Then you must quickly remind yourself that if the cooperative is to survive, the board of directors must appoint a competent manager who has power to insist on performance by the workers. And the cooperative must pay a regular wage to the workers, in addition to sharing any profits. With peasants, or farmers, whether the co-op is a marketing or producing operation, regular income must be assured to the members, but will more likely take the form of share-cropping and profit-sharing, supplemented by substantial family holdings -- private property.

Finally, you should reflect on the significant fact that a cooperative, if it is a true cooperative and not a creature of the state, is itself a form of private property and considerably more private than a corporation owned by stockholders who don't give a damn about the company beyond the size and frequency of dividends.

If all this seems rather foolish, that is because it is, and we can't begin to understand why it is so foolish until we rip away the veil of illusion that has been draped over the figure of Karl Marx.

We come now to the question of class struggle, an aspect of liberation theology that particularly disturbs Cardinal Ratzinger. Gutierrez points out that class struggle has been and remains a historical reality. This is true. From the beginning of time there has been struggle between the rich and the poor in the economic, political, and social aspects of life, between workers and unjust employers, rich or poor, even between workers and just employers when disputing over conditions of employment. One of the weaknesses of Ratzinger's instruction is that he dismissed the reality too quickly and lightly in his eagerness to get at the Marxist doctrine behind the words "class struggle." He writes, "It cannot be taken as the equivalent of 'severe social conflict,' in an empirical sense." Ah, but it is, and more careful clarification should have been addressed to this confusion.

Marx and Gutierrez go further than the notion of class struggle as a historical reality -- much further. I think Ratzinger missed the boat when he summarized the Marxist notion as being the claim that if a person "belongs to the objective class of the rich, he is primarily a class enemy to be fought."

The Marxist doctrine, apparently shared by Gutierrez, is not that he is a class enemy if he belongs to the rich, but that he is a class enemy if he is an employer, because the employer-employee relationship is of necessity a bad, alienating, enslaving, exploitative relationship. By limiting Marxist class struggle to the rich versus the non-rich, Ratzinger conceded far too much to Marx and liberation theology. After all, Jesus had a. very poor opinion of the rich. Remember the camel and the needle's eye.

No, Marx did not merely exclude the rich from his secular heaven. He excluded all employers, rich or poor (excepting only the state). And this exclusion is a far, far more difficult position to reconcile with Christianity than exclusion of the rich. Not simply because it flies in the face of all Judeo-Christian tradition, but even more because it flies in the face of common sense and everyday experience. For common sense and everyday experience have taught us that employers and employees do have important things in conflict. But they also have important things in common. And they can and frequently do work out a just relationship that is abused by neither side, no more and no less than any other power relationship is abused in this permanently imperfect world where live and work permanently imperfect human beings.

Why do I say that Gutierrez apparently shares Marx's view of class struggle? I am thinking particularly, not just of the quotations cited above, but of pp. 272-279 of A Theology of Liberation, and of several reference notes on pp. 284 and 285, notably nn. 51, 56, and 57. Perhaps the most significant passage is .the following on page 277, where Gutierrez quotes with clear approval Louis Althusser, the hard-line French Communist:

Understood in this way, the unity of the church is rightly considered by Althusser as a myth whirh must disappear if the church is to be "reconverted" to the service of the workers in the class struggle. "For this to happen," he asserts, "it would be necessary that the 'myth of the Christian community' disappear, for it prevents the recognition of the division of society into classes and the recognition of class struggle. One can foresee serious divisions occurring in the church precisely around the theme of the recognition and the understanding of social classes and the class struggle, the recognition and the understanding of a reality which is incompatible with the peculiarly religious myth of the 'community of the faithful' and the (catholic) universality of the church" [emphasis in the original].

What could be clearer? Insofar as Cardinal Ratzinger, however imperfectly, is saying that the Marxist myth of class struggle reflected in that passage and endorsed by Gutierrez is indeed incompatible with the reality of "the community of the faithful," I cannot possibly disagree with him. I must, on the contrary, disagree with Gutierrez. And the question, finally, comes down to this: how can any sensible Christian, reflecting carefully on these clearly contradictory positions, do otherwise?

One can understand why Gutierrez and most liberation theologians are cynical about "bourgeois democracy" as practiced in the United States, or, more to the point, practiced on our neighbors to the South. Gutierrez, now and then, expresses his approval of "real" or "genuine" democracy, but he nowhere, to my knowledge, explains precisely what he means. The frequent putdowns for "reform" and "compromise" are not reassuring. Reform and compromise are of the essence of genuine democracy. In truth, they are of the essence of life. It is all very thrilling and macho to call for "revolution, revolution," but after the revolution, what?

It is all very thrilling and macho to call for "revolution, revolution," but after the revolution, what?

In the "final document" of the founding convention of Christians for Socialism, a statement that Gutierrez helped to write, we find this remarkable paragraph: 

The revolutionary process is in full swing in Latin America. Many Christians have made a personal commitment to it, but many more Christians, imprisoned in mental inertia and categories that are suffused with bourgeois ideology, regard this process fearfully and insist on taking the impossible pathway of reformism and modernization. The Latin American process is allembracing and one in character. [There seems to be no allowance permitted for differing situations in twentyodd different countries -- JCC.] We Christians do not have a peculiar political approach of our own to offer, and we do not wish to have such an approach. The realization that the process is all-embracing and one in character makes us comrades, uniting all those who are committed to the revolutionary struggle.

To which I would respond: "But, comrades, you do have a peculiar political approach of your own to offer. You have just expressed it: down with reform and up with revolution. You have an approach. What you do not have is some clear idea of where you are going, other than toward the same beautiful vision of freedom and justice that even the most pro-capitalist Christians profess. (Michael Novak recently published a book with the title, Freedom with Justice.) Once into politics, which is where you are obviously determined to be, the only responsible, the only intellectually competent course is totell the voters exactly what you have in mind. Otherwise, you should stay out of politics."

The conclusion sounds harsh. The conclusion is harsh, something like the harshness of a jealous lover. I am jealous, envious of Karl Marx because he has won the affections of a lot of learned, eloquent, dedicated Christians whom I would like to see dedicated to a brand of socialism that is more unambiguously democratic. Of these Father Gutierrez is certainly one of the most learned, eloquent, and dedicated of them all. His enemies are my enemies and his friends my friends. Or at least they were before they read this critique.

John C. Cort is author of, most recently, Dreadful Conversions: The Making of a Catholic Socialist (Fordham University Press).

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Organizing the Faithful
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