Excursus on Marxism and Religion II: On Liberation Theology

In my previous article on Marxism and religion, I argued the general theoretical case Marxism makes both for understanding religion as a social phenomenon and for arguing against it. In a sense, this could rightly be accused of ‘kicking in an open door’ (as we say in the Netherlands), as it expresses a view widely spread among the radical left today. As secularization has progressed, not even just in Western countries, left and liberal forces have by and large in their theoretical writings cut down reference to religion and spiritual revelation to negligible amounts, and practically it becomes a question of political mobilization more than one of the practice of belief. However, the counterexample often cited by those on the radical left inclined to a more sympathetic stance towards religion (organized or otherwise) is the case of ‘liberation theology’, the explicitly socio-economically radical, pro-poor interpretation of (Catholic) Christianity that established a strong ideological foothold in Latin America in the 1980s and 1990s. The concerted efforts of the Vatican to stamp it out and the fall of the Soviet Union – threatening to relegate Central and South America once more to the United States’ unruly back garden – have seriously reduced its ideological and political power, but as a phenomenon it is worth exploring more systematically from the point of view of Marxism. After all, it is not often one finds pro-religious sentiment and radicalism combined in such a theoretically reflective manner, and it has done much to affect the traditionally strongly secularist tendencies among Marxists in both the First and Third Worlds.

What is then specific to liberation theology? It may well for our purposes practically be summarized as:

an emphasis on God’s preferential option for the poor, read in texts of both the Hebrew Bible and New Testament, the distinctly political elements of the Kingdom or Rule of God, the political and revolutionary dimensions of the Jesus movement, a revolutionary ethics, and a critical engagement with major currents of Western thought… They take the notion, born out of direct political struggle, of the preferential option of the poor at its word, arguing that any reactionary dissolution of such a message contravenes the central message of the Bible.

However, in so doing it does not abandon the supernatural, monotheistic, and specifically Christian nature of this movement. However much it may have been persecuted by imperialist and comprador forces, and however much it may be opposed to the officialdom of the Vatican, it explicitly presents itself not just as a religious movement, but as a necessarily religious movement.

Liberation theologians have always held Marxism at a distance, while using its methods for analysing capitalism, the social, political and economic dimensions of oppression and exploitation. For they have maintained an ontological reserve, arguing that, without some form of divine transcendence, one cannot avoid fetishising what is human. So, the only perspective that avoids idolatry, the raising of human beings or the products of human hands into the status of gods, is ontological transcendence itself.

As James Spickard, the sociologist of religion, writes, citing the liberation theologist Gustavo Gutierrez:

Its commitment is not to revolution per se, but to build the “reign of God” on earth. Its aim is not class conflict, but the full development of the human family. This development is not just physical, but emotional and spiritual. It seeks the right ordering of people’s relationships with each other, with the planet, and with God.
God must not be left out of the equation. As Christians, liberation theologians believe that God is active in history; indeed, God is directing the action, of which people are mere instruments. Like Marxist eschatologists, Christian eschatologists do not know the details of the “final revolution.” But they know it must occur. They have faith that God will not have it otherwise.
Looked at in this light, liberation theology and orthodox Latin American Marxism are structurally similar, but have little else in common.


What might this mean for us? It is clear that liberation theology has many of the same concerns Marxism has with understanding the social and political effects and constraints of class society, that like Marxist politics it aims to mobilize the poor, and that like Marxism they do so out of a certain philosophy of history. It is therefore understandable that many who do not themselves find the god of liberation theology particularly compelling are nonetheless drawn to supporting them. However, I think we must look more closely than that. As we have seen in the previous article on Marxism and religion, for Marxism religion appears as the “sigh of the oppressed creature, the hope of a hopeless world, the soul of soulless conditions, the opium of the people”. As Marx wrote, “religious suffering is, at one and the same time, the expression of real suffering and a protest against real suffering”. As a protest, we may well sympathize with it. But is this sufficient to lend it political and ideological support?

When we talk about support, we need to distinguish two different kinds. In the practice of social revolt or even revolution, there is a certain practical support, a willingness to (in whatever way is appropriate to the circumstances) give alliance and political or rhetorical defense to the real forces undertaking that particular revolt, regardless of their theoretical sophistication from the point of view of Marxism. It is of this kind of diversity of revolutionary forms in real life that Lenin famously wrote:

To imagine that social revolution is conceivable (…) without revolutionary outbursts by a section of the petty bourgeoisie with all its prejudices, without a movement of the politically non-conscious proletarian and semi-proletarian masses against oppression by the landowners, the church, and the monarchy, against national oppression, etc.-to imagine all this is to repudiate social revolution. So one army lines up in one place and says, “We are for socialism”, and another, somewhere else and says, “We are for imperialism”, and that will be a social revolution! (…) Whoever expects a “pure” social revolution will never live to see it. Such a person pays lip-service to revolution without understanding what revolution is.


That is one type of support. But often in the discussions about liberation theology, the inclination of some Marxists to lend it political support in a given revolutionary situation is transformed into a tendency to give it a broader support, to give it theoretical justification, and to adjust the attitude towards (organized) religion accordingly. This, I believe, is a mistake. It is undoubtedly true that we cannot expect religion, religious belief and religious expression to disappear wholly any time soon, although it is truly in decline. Religion is an expression not just of class oppression, but of alienation more generally, and there is absolutely no a priori reason to assume that even after a socialist revolution all forms of alienation would cease. To some extent one may well suppose alienation of one kind or another to be part of the human condition, and perhaps even inescapably bound up with the imaginative faculty that provides mankind with its creative powers. This does not however entail that we should not criticize even its manifestations that take, among other things, the form of apparently politically radical conclusions. In his Theses on Feuerbach, Marx made clear why this is. In the fourth thesis, he writes: “But that the secular basis detaches itself from itself and establishes itself as an independent realm in the clouds can only be explained by the cleavages and self-contradictions within this secular basis. The latter must, therefore, in itself be both understood in its contradiction and revolutionized in practice. Thus, for instance, after the earthly family is discovered to be the secret of the holy family, the former must then itself be destroyed in theory and in practice.”(5)

What does this practically mean? For Marxists, religion is not just the sigh of the oppressed creature. It is also like all mystifications of human powers an attempt to project these powers onto alien forces, a theoretical reflection of alienation in the presupposition of the powerlessness of mankind. The greater the god of religion, the weaker the humanity that is subject to him. The more power ascribed to god, the fewer powers mankind has reserved for itself. When the liberation theologists impute the working of god in history to guide mankind to its redemption, they theoretically and practically alienate mankind’s self-awareness of its potential to do this itself. As Marx wrote, this very phenomenon is itself the product of the alienations of class society in particular; in this case, one in which the poverty and oppression of the peasant class of Latin America appears as the vehicle, the opportunity for mankind’s redemption through the substance of the gospel. It cannot disappear without the disappearance of that poverty and oppression. But even as liberation theology seeks to mobilize the peasantry and emancipate them from their poverty, they de-emancipate them from their awareness of their own powers, by projecting these on the figures of divinity. After all, for Jesus “the poor you will always have with you, but you will not always have me”. An emancipation that is god-centered is an emancipation that substitutes for the alienation of poverty and oppression the alienation of the absence of consciousness, the alienation of mankind’s submission to reified ideas and powers it has itself imagined in the long nightmare of its bondage.

In the eighth thesis, Marx writes that “All mysteries which lead theory to mysticism find their rational solution in human practice and in the comprehension of this practice” (my emphasis). This comprehension, then, is an essential part of the historical potential of the oppressed classes in a class society to overcome that class society by becoming aware of their own position and their own ability to transform the social relations of production. For Marx, this potential is only fully realizable in capitalism, because for the first time there arises a world market within which the productive powers are developed without precedent, within which all peoples of the world are connected by the same class interests, and where the remaining revolutionary class can only be that of the great majority of producers acting for their own emancipation.

But this requires for good reason a scientific socialism: because the coming to self-awareness of that great majority, its understanding of its own historical genesis as well as of the potentiality of using the productive powers capitalism has developed for it rather than against it, and what one might call the social scientific understanding of the possibility of cooperation, planning, and economic democracy for achieving the this-worldly aims of human emancipation, all these depend on the comprehension of that great majority as fully empowered historical actors in their own right. We cannot allow this potential to be harnessed to its projection onto a divinity or supernatural power, even one claiming to have a ‘preference’ for the poor. The poor, indeed, we will always have with us, within a given class society; but the revolutionary, self-emancipatory people are a breakthrough in history with a force that no religious contemplation can possibly match. What the liberation theologists condemn as the fetishization of the human is precisely humanity coming to know itself in the practice of its emancipation, and in so knowing, exorcising the ghostly fetish conjured by its alienation. Here, the emancipation of mankind and the cause of liberation theology are diametrically opposed. For these reasons, then, we must theoretically and substantially oppose liberation theology, even when we must also recognize its contingent significance for social revolution in a given time and place, as in late 20th century Latin America.

1) Roland Boer, “The Perpetual Allure of the Bible for Marxism”. Historical Materialism 15 (2007), p. 70-71.
2) Boer, p. 71.
3) James Spickard, “Transcending Marxism: Liberation theology and critical theology”. Cross Currents 42:3 (1992), p. 326-42.
4) Lenin, Collected Works, Vol. 22 (Moscow 1964), p. 355-356.
5) http://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1845/theses/theses.htm


Liberation theology tends to have good PR among the left. Consider a religious anti-oppression movement that isn’t quite as well reputed: the Nation of Islam. At one time (before the crisis of the 1970s) it was a key organizing center for African-Americans, bringing wealth, education and self-respect into their communities. In an America that told black people to think and live on white people’s terms or not at all, the Nation had the courage to put forth an alternative, even if it was a highly mystified one.

Does this mean that leftists, then or now, should promote the Nation’s ideology with all of its reactionary elements, or that of its New Black Panther offshoots — rabid anti-Semitism, racial antagonism and homophobia? No way! Present alternatives. Do research and find demystified answers to the questions that people in such movements have. Disagree, but don’t scold people in the depths of their oppression.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *