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More on liberation theology and marxism.


It was with great interest that I read Fred Carrier's essay "Liberation Theology and Marxist Economics' (MR, January 1987). As a student of both Liberation Theology and Marxist scholarship, I would like to offer some remarks on Carrier's contribution to a critique of Liberation Theology.

His essay is both welcome and timely, since Liberation Theology is in need of criticism by the Marxist left. Both schools of thought place primary importance on the emancipation of oppressed people, and only constructive criticism can bridge the secular and spiritual aspects of what is fundamentally similar. What I find disconcerting, however, is that Carrier's view roughly parallels that of the right in that both fail to appreciate the significance of the spiritual foundation that defines Liberation Theology. Moreover, his work shows a lack of depth and understanding of the complexity and varieties of contemporary liberation thought.

While Carrier rightly argues the Liberation Theology needs to embrace Marxism as a foundation for socioeconomic analysis, he (curiously) fails to note that some of the very authors he cites are calling for just such a development. It is precisely because Liberation Theology utilizes Marxist categories of social analysis that it is perceived as a threat to bourgeois political elites as well as to the institutionalized Roman Catholic Church.

Liberation Theology is primarily a spiritual movement grounded in the day-to-day project of living--of praxis, i.e., reflection and action. When Carrier asserts it is only an ethical theory when "stripped of its biblical and mystical trappings' (p. 25), he misses the point. These "trappings' constitute the mediation between social reality and spiritual reflection. Liberation Theology's ethical-ness is derived from the words of Christ and the Biblical prophets. Similarly, Marxism provides a mediation between the abstract and the concrete, between theory and practice. Yet it remains distinct from the transcendent dimension that Liberation Theology brings to the political project of liberation.

Mr. Carrier states that "theologians of liberation are still at a utopian stage of the movement.' (p. 25) This is an oversimplification. Enrique Dussel argues that two dimensions exist in Liberation Theology. The first is the historical, and the second is the eschatological or utopian. A dialectic exists between the "old history' and the "new history' which leads to the horizon of possibility, the utopian. As we move to that horizon the new moment becomes the old, the eschatological becomes the new, and the dialectic continues.

Carrier also argues that "beautiful aspirations toward equality and justice' are expressed by liberation theologians, "but without any clear sense of how to get there.' (p. 25) Again, this strikes me as an oversimplification. Following Dussel and others, we must differentiate between those activities that fall under the purview of the church and those that fall under the purview of the state. The role of the church and of theologians qua theologians is essentially a prophetic one and not one of actually implementing a program of "how to get there.' It is not the case that theologians cannot do this (witness Miguel D'Escoto in his role as Nicaragua's Foreign Minister), but when they do, they do so as revolutionaries working within the new society toward a new horizon of political possibility. The distinction may appear trivial but in fact it is important.

The two primary sources used by Carrier--Gustavo Gutierrez and Jose Miguez Bonio--have, as well as Enrique Dussel, consciously employed Marxist categories, because Marxism has been seen to possess the greatest explanatory power regarding Latin America's socio-political reality. At the same time, however, the correspondence between such analysis and historical fact needs to retain an opening for critical thinking. When Marxist analysis is linked to Liberation Theology, this opening is expanded because Liberation Theology is essentially prophetic. A critical perspective implies the possibility for transcendence--the movement of the dialectic between history and eschatology in the search for newer, more just modes of social existence. Just as the capitalist moment in history requires criticism (in a prophetic sense), so too will the socialist moment require it. This kind of criticism is reserved not only for the state but for all that Marx referred to as superstructure. For all of these facets of society can become--as Dussel has argued in his Philosophy of Liberation and Franz Hinkelammert in his The Ideological Weapons of Death--A Theological Critique of Capitalism--totalized within the system. Totalization is related to the acceptance of "law,' i.e., all that society tells us should be.

From this perspective, then, there is a danger in Carrier's call for Marxism to be the sole economic blueprint for Liberation Theology, in that it can become totalized as the only system (witness the aberrations during Stalin's call for industrialization). Marx certainly foresaw the potential problem when he spoke of a "crude communism.'

I am in perfect agreement with Carrier that at this present moment of transnational monopoly capitalism, Marxism does hold the key for political liberation of the oppressed, but whether this Marxism should be rigid and immutable over time is an issue that needs to be addressed by a critical left and a prophetic church.

I also agree with Carrier that Marx, in his formulation of the critique of capitalism, does articulate a "moral principle' completely congruent with Judeo-Christian thought. Yet a danger exists in totalizing Marx that is as problematic as the historical totalizing of Christianity throughout the centuries.

Scientific socio-economic analysis withing the rubric of Liberation Theology is being done. A closer reading of Gutierrez, Dussel, and others will reveal a higher degree of congruence between Marxism and Christianity than many of the secular left may have imagined. Carrier's call for a transcendence of "utopian wishes' does Liberation Theology an injustice. It will always be prophetic in its outline for a spiritual and politically just social order. But the actual political and economic project of justice can only be implemented by one who has the task as politician or economist. What Marx called the "realm of freedom' is what liberation thinkers call the utopian or eschatological horizon. It is this dimension the informs the very possibility of our political and historical reality.
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Title Annotation:reaction to Fred Carrier's essay Liberation Theology and Marxist Economics
Author:Kozyn, Johannes C.T.
Publication:Monthly Review
Date:Nov 1, 1987
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