Theology of Liberation and Marxism

by Enrique Dussel


Theology, a reflection arising from praxis, has need of a series of theoretical instruments if it is to pronounce its own discourse. Having explained this first point, we still have three others to address: Which Marxism are we talking about? Why are Marxist tools used? And—the most important from a descriptive point of view—why do liberation theologians use Marxism?

1. Theology and Scientific Discourse

All theology, through the ages, has used some particular scientific discourse as a mediation for the construction of its reflection. Faith is the basic moment of theological discourse. Faith, in turn, is an aspect of praxis—Christian praxis. Christian activity or praxis includes the light in which theological thought can be regarded as Christian. That is to say, the daily praxis of existential faith is the light that shows whether activity may be seen to be the following of Jesus of Nazareth. In like manner, praxis, which includes faith as its Christian foundation, is the constituent antecedent of theology. Theology is nothing but a theoretical discourse (spiritual, sapiential and methodical, but likewise always "practical," according to Thomas Aquinas) that, from a point of departure in Christian praxis, in the light of faith, reflects, thinks, supplies with a rational foundation, the reality, the problems that saw praxis encounters on a daily basis. It belongs to theology to be a "methodical" discourse; that is, it follows the most developed rules or requirements of the most developed rationality of the epoch in which it is being practiced. In the Babylonian context of the sixth century B.C., the "Adamic myth" is a theological construction corresponding to the best of the symbolic rationality of its time (for example, vis-à-vis the myth of Gilgamesh). Jesus used the theological tools of his time (those of the rabbinical and Pharisaic schools, and so forth). From the second century of our era, with the appearance of the Greek Christian theological schools (first those of the Apostolic Fathers, then the Apologists, then Alexandrinians like Origen), Christian faith built up its theological discourse through the use of the "science" (epistēmē) of its time: Platonic philosophy (and theology). Platonic "categories" permitted the construction of a Christian theology through the use of tools that in the first century had been regarded as intrinsically perverse—part of a "pagan," anti-Christian culture. In the twelfth century, at a time when Aristotelianism had been explicitly condemned, Albertus Magnus and Thomas Aquinas used Aristotle, who provided them with a system of categories in which a theological discourse could unfold that was destined to hold sway in Catholic theology down to our very day. In the nineteenth century, the German theologian Johan Moehler employed the instruments of the philosophy of his time to effect an in-depth renewal of a German Catholic theology that had fallen hopelessly behind a Protestant theology outfitted with the best philosophy of the Enlightenment and Hegelian thought. It was not until the twentieth century that Karl Rahner, with an existential philosophy in a Heideggerian cast, or a Johannes Baptist Metz, with the philosophy of the Frankfurt "critical school," brought theology abreast of the thinking of their time. In other words, theology has always had to seize upon a method (traditionally almost exclusively a philosophical one) in order to construct, from praxis, from faith, a methodical, rational, scientific discourse.

2. Why Are Marxist Analytical Tools Used?

Liberation theology arises from an experience of Christian praxis—a faith praxis. Historically and concretely, theology has always been anticipated by Christian praxis and ecclesial faith—the faith and praxis of Christian groups and theologians-to-be. The concepts that a nascent Latin American theology found itself under the obligation of expounding and justifying in order to meet the needs of militant Christians were the theological reasons accounting for the meaning of the "political commitment" of these Christians. But why a political commitment? In order to bring about a social, economic, and political change that would permit the exploited clases (first), the poor (more theologically), and the Latin American people (last) to reach a just, humane, fulfilled life. It is the twofold demand of (1) a theological reflection on the "political commitment" (2) in order to serve the oppressed, the "poor," the people, that required this nascent theology to use other analytical, interpretative, tools from those known to previous theological tradition. Faced with the absence of an adequate theology already in existence, theologians had to seize upon the Latin American critical social sciences—not only "social" sciences (such as sociology, economics, and so forth), but "critical" (concerned with discovering and situating the reality of injustice) and "Latin American" (because our continent had questions "of its own" to resolve) social sciences. The decision to use these tools, then, was not an a priori dogmatic or epistemological decision. It was Christian praxis and faith, and criteria fundamentally spiritual and pastoral (the fact that Christians were becoming involved in politics in order to fight injustice, together with the social teaching of the church) that made adequate analytical categories necessary.

Thus it came about that an infant Latin American theology began to make use of the tools of Marxist categories (emerging historically from the Marxism of the French tradition, already being used in student and worker groups). Juan Luis Segundo, José Comblin, Gustavo Gutiérrez, and I belonged to the generation that had studied in France or Belgium. That set of instruments—we shall see presently what it was and how it was used—made it possible for the new theology that began in 1968 to call itself liberation theology (in Rubem Alves's Princeton dissertation) to reach unexpected results in the area of the analysis of historical, social, and political realities (as well as in other areas, once it had discovered its methodology, which was applicable to other levels of reflection, as would soon be the case with a theology of the liberation of women, of the oppressed races, and so on). What was occurring, if we may so speak, was an epistemological revolution in the world history of Christian theology. For the first time, the critical social sciences were being used. Political economics and sociology, which had originated only well into the nineteenth century, had never been consistently used by Christian theology. Just as modernism produced a crisis with its use of history in theology (from Renan to Blondel), so also liberation theology generated a crisis by adopting the social sciences, and among them, as their critical nucleus, Marxism. The twenty-first century will show how important liberation theology has been in its missionary function in the contemporary world, beginning at the end of our own twentieth century—in the world of the poor, in Latin America, Africa, and Asia, and very particularly, in the nations of "real socialism," where it is the only intelligible, understandable, and prophetic theology possible.

3. Which Marxism Does Liberation Theology Adopt?

What Marxism do we mean when we say that the theology of liberation makes use of Marxism? We shall return to this point below; for the moment, let us only notice that, as we might well suppose, liberation theologians adopt only a "certain kind" of Marxism, excluding other "kinds," at least implicitly, sometimes explicitly. First of all, of the various possible Marxisms, liberation theologians unanimously reject dialectical materialism. No liberation theologian accepts the materialism expounded by Frederick Engels in his Dialectic of Nature, or of Lenin, Bukharin, or Stalin. Marx is accepted, and adopted, as a social critic. But even Marx can be approached in two ways: by way of secondary readings (as by Yves Calvez in France); or by way of the "young" Marx (up to the Manifesto of 1848). In the first generation of theologians (from Juan Luis Segundo to José Comblin, Gustavo Gutiérrez, or my position at the beginning of the 1960s), the French influence was very powerful. First it was Jacques Maritain, then Emmanuel Mounier, and afterward Lebret in Economy and Humanism, whom we followed. Pierre Teilhard de Chardin also inspired the thought of these years. But then came Marx, by way of the Cuban revolution (1959), and we began to read, simultaneously, the young Marx and works like those of Che Guevara, Antonio Gramsci, and Lukács. That is, we read a "humanistic" Marx—as he was called at the time—clearly neither dogmatic, nor economistic, nor naively materialistic. There was, at that time, no serious direct approach to the "definitive" Marx (Marx from 1857 onward), nor, as we shall see, is there a great deal today.

Along with Antonio Gramsci, whom we have already mentioned, the first line of approach was that of the Frankfurt School. Here it was especially the North American Marcusian branch (whose influence can be seen in Rubem Alves as early as 1968), so broadly utilized elsewhere, even in theology (by Johannes Baptist Metz in Germany), that influenced us. The thought of Ernst Bloch, as well, had a comprehensive impact—especially through Jürgen Moltmann on the question of utopia and hope. And mainly, the work of Louis Althusser, pedagogically translated by Martha Harnecker in her celebrated works, was to influence not only liberation theology (especially in its second generation) but Latin American Marxist thought as a whole.

Obviously Fidel Castro, from 1959 onward, became required reading, especially in his position on religion. Along with numerous French thinkers, Giulio Girardi, the Italian liberation theologian, was also to have an influence by virtue of his forthright Marxist position—at first decidedly classist, but later popular, with the "people" as historical subject (agent) of liberation.

But there was a Marxism that actually left a far more indelible mark on the theology of liberation than the Marxism that we have been examining. We might call it theoretical Marxism. This is the Latin American sociological and economic Marxism of "dependency," from Orlando Fals Borda to Theotonio dos Santos, Faletto, Cardoso, and so on (many of whom have never actually been Marxists themselves). It is this sociology of dependency, with its criticism of functionalism and developmentalism that will occasion the epistemological breach on the part of the theology of liberation. Thus, the position of Andre Gunder Frank—with all the criticisms to which it is open—will be determinative in liberation theology before 1972. Franz Hinkelammert—as Marxist and as theologian—will perhaps be the sole representative of the "definitive" Marx. This expression emerged from a whole group at the end of the 1960s, in Santiago, that had been seriously examining Das Kapital (at the Centro de Estudios de la Realidad Nacional). It will be the occasion of the particularly strong presence of Marxism in a very creative current of liberation theology in the 1980s.

All of these historical interconnections are still in need of an adequate examination. Neither do we have a history of contemporary Latin American Marxism, least of all within Christian movements. But what we have seen will suffice to demonstrate how simplistic a conservative criticism of liberation theology is when it accuses it of being Marxist in an ideological sense. It was precisely the theology of liberation, in all Christian responsibility, that, long before its critics, had the painstaking task of adopting a "certain" Marxism, one compatible with a Christian faith received from the prophets, from Jesus, and from church tradition immemorial as well as recent (and of course ecumenical currents). Anything like a Stalinist dogmatism, the economicism of the manuals, or "philosophical" Marxism is altogether foreign to liberation theology.

4. In What Way Do Liberation Theologians Adopt Marxism?

Were we to undertake to expound our subject adequately, we should need more than the space of an entire book to accomplish the task. In these brief pages, then, we shall attempt an initial sketch of the question in a few of the theologians, more by way of a limited example than as an adequate survey.

The theology of development was pre-Marxist. So were the first works of Juan Luis Segundo and José Comblin. On the other hand, the theology of revolution had already used Marxist instruments of analysis—but not in the same fashion as liberation theology was to do. I think that, historically, the difference is in the presence or absence of the theory of dependency, which "Latin-Americanized" Marxism and gave it a historico-social dimension. Hugo Assmann was the first to furnish an adequate indication of the lack of correspondence among these theologies (of development, of revolution, Moltmann's theology of hope, Metz's political theology, and so on). Let us not forget where it all started: with José Porfirio Miranda's historic Marx and the Bible, which posed the question forthrightly and biblically. But paradoxically, what we have, of course, is a Christian looking at Marx, and not actually a Marxist interpretation of the encounter between Marx and theology.

Rubem Alves, in A Theology of Human Hope, sets forth the problematic as it prevailed in North America in 1968. He does so in the presence of Marcuse, and from the Protestant tradition of the theology of revolution, which he here transcends for the first time. For theologian Alves, "political humanism"—that of Marcuse—overcomes mechanistic technologism, and demonstrates the importance of the political element. The "humanistic messianism" of philosophical Marxism falls short of an adequate definition of the transcendency at work in the liberation movement, holds Alves. This definition must be the deed, instead, of a Christian "messianic humanism." Alves's citations of the early Marx, of Marcuse, of Alvaro Vieira Pinto, of Bloch, of Paulo Freire show us the kind of Marxism then in use. There is no question of social analysis as yet.

For his own part, Hugo Assmann declares:

Talking of liberation implies taking a new analytical stance with regard to the situation of our countries, a basically new conception of the phenomenon of underdevelopment, and, consequently, a new point of departure from which to map out the political and economic ways out of this situation. The conclusions drawn are inevitably revolutionary, and the langauge of liberation is the language that articulates them. This relates it directly to the new analysis of under-development.
Assmann's is a criticism of the "developmentalistic" language then making its appearance in certain Latin American social-science circles—not necessarily Marxist—and attempting to explain the poverty and oppression of the Latin American people. Assmann uses Marxist categories. But, once more, these are of a Gramscian and Lukacsian type (an anti-economistic critique of the ideologies), although he accepts the supra- and infrastructure paradigm. With his broad formation in this Marxist thought—and his familiarity with the German tradition, as well—he analyzes the "truth" of a discourse from a point of departure in the praxis that is its basis. However, once again criticizing traditional Marxism, he shows the revolutionary importance of the ideological struggle—in which theology is a partner. Thus, as we have said, he was the first to succeed in establishing a clear distinction between liberation theology and the postconciliar European theologies (theology of hope, political theology, third-world theology of revolution, and so on). He provided us with clear analyses of the symbolical structure as a superstructure. His discourse criticized not only Stalinist dogmatism, but even Althusser's thinking—for failing adequately to situate the question of fetishism or the relationship of theory and praxis.

Juan Luis Segundo, whose formation in sociology was more along the functionalist lines of the 1950s, also adopts Marxist categories of analysis, especially the concept of ideology. He has used the social sciences from his first books onward (Función de la Iglesia en la realidad rioplatense, 1962), and is a matchless critic. He unveils the moments of concealment and falsification in the European or North American theologies, and even in the Roman documents, as in his critical work, Theology and the Church: A Letter to Cardinal Ratzinger and a Warning to the Church.

Gustavo Gutiérrez begins to blaze the trail in 1964. His A Theology of Liberation—whose first sketches appear in 1968 with hiss critique of developmentalism—cites Gramsci in its first note, where the author explains that the particular Marxism of interest to him will be an anti-economistic one, and not dialectical materialism. Gutiérrez applies a decidedly political Marxism, then, a Marxism of cultural analysis. Hence his basic thesis that theology—like philosophy in the Gramscian sense—is a "critical reflection on [Christian] praxis." Like all liberation theology of the 1960s, Gutiérrez's theology starts off with a critique of the "notion of development" and posits liberation as the antithesis of that notion. He cites authors like Althusser, Korsch, Lukács, Mariátegui, and Sanchez Vásquez. And of course he cites Marx himself. All of this evinces the use of a critical, Latin American, and anti-economistic Marxism, a Marxism pressed into the service of a political analysis. And by way of citing Che Guevara, Gutiérrez chooses this text: Permit me to state, at the risk of appearing ridiculous, that the true revolutionary is guided by great sentiments of love. Every day the struggle must be waged that this love for living humanity be transformed into concrete deeds.

Marxism is also found indirectly among the pertinent social sciences as an instrument for the discovery and description of the fact of the poverty of the Latin American people and the concrete projects of liberation. Gutiérrez's "Marxismo y cristianismo," unpublished, shows a prudent, profoundly theological use of Marxist categories like class struggle, revolution, and utopia.

José Míguez Bonino's Christians and Marxists: The Mutual Challenge to Revolution is perhaps the only work to be devoted explicitly to a treatment of the bonds between Marxism and Christianity among liberation theologians—although Miranda dealt with it in Marx and the Bible. The Argentinian theologian's familiarity with Marx is of no recent vintage, and its profundity is in evidence as early as 1969, when José Míguez Bonino asked in his critical foreword to Rubem Alves's book:

Does the renascence of humanistic Marxism not arise from the situation of the developed countries?. Is not our own situation very different, so that humanism will require a more elementary and "materialistic" positing that will effectively incorporate political, scientific, and technological rationality, without which liberation might become a mere dialectical game?

As a theologian of "Christians for Socialism," in 1972, Pablo Richard—together with Gonzalo Arroya, its founder—incorporates Marxist categories. Gramsci is his obligatory reference, especially in his book, Death of Christendom, Birth of the Church, and he uses him systematically in defining his theoretical framework.

In Leonardo Boff, the rejection of capitalism "is oriented to a liberation in the framework of a different society." Theology is constructed from two starting points: faith (biblical faith as interpreted by the magisterium and tradition) and social reality. In order to rediscover this reality, and subject it to theological reflection, "recourse must be had to the human social sciences, such as anthropology, sociology, psychology, political science, economics, and social philosophy." It is here that we find Boff's use of Marxism. But he explains: [Latin American theology] makes nonservile use of the analytical tool developed by Marxist tradition (Marx and the various contributions of socialism, of Gramsci, of French academic Marxism, and others), disconnected from their philosophical presuppositions in dialectical materialism. Here Marxism is taken as science, not as philosophy.

Clodovis Boff's Theology and Praxis: Epistemological Foundations, is perhaps the most systematic theological work attempting to adopt the theoretical framework of Althusser. Boff's theoretical practice is extremely rigorous in its adoption of the French Marxism of the 1970s. It shows how a Marxist categorical framework can be used in a strictly Christian theology of the political. Now an analogous work is needed, having Marx himself as its reference. We shall return to this matter below./

For his part, Jon Sobrino indicates that many of the European theologies respond to the objections of the "first Enlightenment," that of Kant, which calls into question the relationship of faith and reason. The "second Enlightenment," that of Marx, questions the relationship between faith and historical change. Of what good is religion in historical transformations? Which will faith justify, domination or liberation? It is thus that Marxism is adopted by the theology of liberation: as a theology that not only interprets reality, but justifies its transformation—even its revolutionary transformation.

Otto Maduro has taken a new approach to the question of religion in the young Marx, and in the Catholic young Engels. Juan Carlos Scannone, on the other hand, belongs to the wing of liberation theology that opposes Marxism—due to the particular conditions of his national situation—as does Lucio Gera.

It must not be forgotten that the use of Marxism in the most profound current of spirituality and mysticism—as with Arturo Paoli, who had done Hegelian and Marxist studies in Italy together with an Italian Catholic Action chaplain later to be known as Paul VI, or Ernesto Cardenal in his Santidad en la revolución, which marks the end of a de facto bottleneck when it came to recognizing the validity of revolutionary processes—reaches in the Teoponte guerrillas in Bolivia a genuinely mystical degree. (We prescind from its political suitability). Witness the case of Ne'stor Paz Zamora. We could name many others.

Anticipating our conclusions, we may indicate that, as can be observed, liberation theology uses a certain Marxism in a certain way—never in such a way as to be incompatible with the foundations of the faith. Some hold a more frankly classist position; others hold a more nearly populist one. Some use only the tools of ideological criticism; others include those of social criticism, and even of a properly economic criticism (as we shall see below). Others, indeed, oppose Marxism across the board—although these find it difficult to define themselves as members of the theological movement known as the theology of liberation. Some take their inspiration in a more French current of Marxism, others in the Italian or German, and in most cases in several simultaneously. All, however, adopt the thesis of dependency propounded by the Latin American current—a thesis defined with a great deal of care, in full awareness of the criticisms to which it is open. We may assert, then, that the theology of liberation is the first theological movement to adopt Marxism—with all of the reservations that we have indicated—in the world history of Christian theology (and before its adoption by any of the other universal religions).


The Christian option for the poor and oppressed, and the consequent use of the epistemological tool of the social sciences, has been interpreted by many—within and without the church—as a Marxist "manipulation" or "infiltration" of theology. This unjust accusation—unjust in its intent—is almost as old as liberation theology itself.

1. Position of the 1984 "Instruction on Certain Aspects of the Theology of Liberation"

Were we to hark back to the oldest indictment of the theology of liberation as a Marxist current, we would recall the October 1972 accusation leveled against Father Jaime Serna, as reported by Bogotá television and the dailies. A headline in El Tiempo on November 5, 1972, read: "CELAM Accused of Marxism." This was the year the Latin American Bishops' Conference changed direction. The 1969 Rockefeller Report had spoken of a Marxist infiltration of the church. The later Santa Fe (New Mexico) report became part of Reagan's 1980 campaign platform, and now referred explicitly to the dangers lurking in our theology.

In 1975 R. Vekemans wrote Teologia de la liberación y Cristianos para el Socialismo. In 1978 Boaventura Kloppenburg made a similar attempt to link liberation theology with the Chilean movement Christians for Socialism. Javier Lozano, in La Iglesia del pueblo, now argued even more one-sidedly. For Vekemans, Christians for Socialism was the inspiration for the theology of liberation, and the practical upshot was a Marxist option for armed and violent struggle. For Kloppenburg, both movements, being Marxist, ultimately set up a "popular church," a new sect. For Lozano, the "popular church" was the point of departure, and liberation theology its inspiration, while the origin of that theology itself was to be found in Stalinist Marxism-Leninism.

In the 1984 "Instruction"—and we here prescind from any analysis of the theology implied in that document—we observe, beginning with Point 7, a concern with the question of Marxist analysis. The central thesis of the "Instruction," for our purposes, is as follows.

The thought of Marx constitutes a monolithic conceptualization of the world, in which numerous data of observation and descriptive analysis are integrated into a philosophico-ideological structure that imposes on these data the meaning and relative importance ascribed to them. A dissociation of the heterogeneous elements composing this epistemologically hybrid amalgam is ultimately impossible; thus, while believing we are accepting only what is presented as an analysis, we find ourselves obliged to accept the underlying ideology as well. But the "thought of Marx" himself—leaving Engels, Lenin, and Stalin aside—is philosophico-economic; and his mature, "scientific" works, definitive for later tradition, bear no resemblance to the description found in the "Instruction," which declares, for example: "Atheism and the rejection of the human person, of his freedom and his rights, are at the center of the Marxist conception." In our complete reading of the works of Marx, we have seen nothing of the kind. On the contrary, Marx actually opposed the militant atheism of the Communist International. Bakunin attacked Marx for being the director of the International, which he excoriated as a "denier of atheism." Indeed, Marx writes to Friedrich Bolte, on November 23, 1871, that in 1868 he had been unable to accept Bakunin's proposition of the "demand of atheism as a dogma of the members," because "the International takes no cognizance of theological divisions [Sektionen]." On August 4, 1878, he writes to George Howell, indicating that "the Sektion of socialistic atheists" that Bakunin sought to impose was never accepted (neither was the YMCA) because "theological Sektionen are not recognized in the International." Marx explicitly opposed militant atheism. The "Instruction" is obviously unaware of these facts and ignores the differences among Marx, Engels, Stalin, Gramsci, Lukács, Bloch, and so on (see "The Second 'Instruction,' 1986" below).

As for the human person, we may assert without fear of contradiction that, in Marx, this "person" (Person in his German) is the point of departure and continuous point of reference in the erection of his categories and in his critique. "Living work" [lebendige Arbeit] is the person that, when "subsumed" or "alienated" (sinned against, in Christian categories) in capital, becomes a "thing," a "tool," a mere "article of merchandise,"—the very doctrine of Laborem Exercens.

That is, if it is evident that there are various traditions in Marxism, and even profound contradictions (Marx's rejection of militant atheism and Stalin's endorsement of it, the nonexistence of a dialectical materialism in Marx and its clear positing later, to indicate but two serious questions for theology), the "Instruction's" entire argument is vitiated in its root. Liberation theologians have been able to remove from Marxism the elements that are incompatible with their faith, and have actually done so (as we have demonstrated above). The conclusion of the 1984 "Instruction," then, is a false one: This monolithic conception imposes its logic, and draws the theologies of liberation to accept an ensemble of positions incompatible with the Christian view of the human being.

2. The Second "Instruction," 1986

The 1984 "Instruction" handed down its implied condemnation of liberation theology without having demonstrated the heterodoxy of that theology. But the desired practical result was achieved: anyone in the church looking for an excuse to shut liberation theology out of houses of formation (of seminarians, religious, or laity), universities, periodicals, and so forth, had it ready at hand. The theology of liberation was effectively prevented from reigning in the Latin American church, while it continued to grow in Africa, Asia, Europe (even in the socialist countries), and the United States. The effect was political, then.

The "Instruction on Christian Freedom and Liberation" of March 22, 1986, as we see from its title, deals primarily with the problem of freedom, especially religious freedom (hence its indirect reference to the countries of real socialism), and much less with liberation. Thus the 1986 "Instruction" opens with, "The truth sets us free," and not with texts like "I am the bread of life," or "Blessed are the poor." The theology of liberation begins with an actual, fleshly misery: hunger. The "Instruction" is concerned with truths, teachings, the struggle for freedom—which presuppose that one has eaten, drunk, slept, has clothing, is in decent health, and so on, which are the criteria of the Last Judgment (Matt. 25). And so it goes so far as to say: "Under its manifold forms, ... human misery is the manifest sign of the congenital weakness in which the human being is found after the first sin.

And the response to this misery is "works of beneficence," or "almsgiving." But at least there is no explicit repetition of the old allegations of Marxism; there are indirect accusations in the new document's frequent references to the 1984 "Instruction." Theologically, the new document's position is very similar to that of the first "Instruction."


Thomas Aquinas taught that theology is a science because it practices a method—in Thomas's case, the Aristotelian. Liberation theology's habitual use of its scientific tools is in full conformity with the tradition of earlier theologies, from the time of the Apostolic Fathers through the Fathers of the Church and the medieval Latin theologians, down to our present day. It is the first theology, of course, to use Marxism as a valid mediation—having previously set that Marxism on a level compatible with Christian faith. The Fathers of the Church used Platonism, St. Thomas used Aristotelianism, and Rahner's theology, to cite a modern example, used Heidegger. In the nineteenth century, the use of the science of history occasioned the Modernist crisis. And yet today all theology is historical: the crisis has passed. This is what will happen in the twenty-first century with Marxism. What is interesting is that it is a theology of the peripheral countries that has been the first—in virtue of the necessity imposed on it by its practical, liberative option—to attempt the use of Marxism. Thus, that theology has had to suffer criticism, misunderstanding, and even condemnation; but the road it has taken has remained open, and future generations will be able to travel it in safety, orthodoxy, and justice. Let us consider only certain present challenges, which promise a bright future.

1. Reception of Marxist Categories in the Magisterium of the Church

I should like to give only one example here, among the many I could offer, but one that will be strong enough to make it possible to understand the situation. In millions of its members, the church is now experiencing the reality of a noncapitalist world. In that world, Marxism and Marxist categories are part of daily life—what Husserl or Habermas would have called the Lebenswelt. In Laborem Exercens, the 1981 encyclical, a number of different categories are used; there is a very intelligent understanding of Marx in many passages against a naive, economistic, Stalinist Marxism. Let us see some instances of this.

The basic structure of the encyclical is that of a description of the relationships obtaining among work, bread, and life. Life is the origin; human persons are living beings. Because they are alive, these persons consume their lives; they have needs. Needs call for the creative activity of work, which produces bread (the product par excellence in biblical thought). Then this bread, this product, consumed, satisfies need and restores and augments life. This is the life cycle. Marx enunciates this in prototypal fashion: I should have objectified my individuality and its peculiarity in my production [read "my bread"], and should therefore have double enjoyment: during the activity, the experience of a vital individual expression, and in contemplating the object [the bread], the individual joy of knowing that my personhood is an objective power. My work would be the expression of free life, to the extent that it partakes of the joy of life.

Speaking of the relationship between bread or production and consumption or satisfaction, Marx manifests a frank personalism:

In the former [production], the producer is objectified as a thing. In the latter [consumption], the thing created by [the producer] becomes person [personifiziert].

And this is repeated in his famous passage: "Merchandise [read "bread"] is an external object, a thing which, thanks to its properties, satisfies human needs."

Needs, for Marx, are human. "Work is one of the characteristics that distinguish the human being from the rest of creatures," declares the encyclical.

In conformity with Catholic social teaching, the encyclical declares that the dignity of the human person is the foundation of the dignity of work. On this point the agreement with Marx is even literal:

Some labors realized by the human being may have an objective value;... nevertheless,. they are measured by the yardstick of the dignity of the actual subject of the work: the person. Marx says explicitly: Work as absolute poverty [absolute Armut]. exists without mediation, ... and can only be an objectivity unseparated from the person [Person]: only an objectivity that coincides with its immediate bodiliness [Leiblichkeit]. Work. is the nonobjectified, that is, unobjective, that is, subjective existence of work itself: work not as object, but as activity,. as living source of value. By. capacity for work we understand the ensemble of physical and mental faculties existing in bodiliness, in the living personhood [lebendige Personlichkeit] of a human being. The author of certain pages of the encyclical knows Marx's work very well. He speaks of "capacity for work" (Arbeitsvermöge), which Marx uses in the Grundrisse (1857-58) and in the Manuscripts of 1861-63 and 1863-65, but which he replaces with "work power" (Arbeitskraft) in Das Kapital (1867), and which later Marxism therefore no longer uses. For Marx, "work itself has no [economic] value"; only "capacity for work" does, since it is the "creative source of value" because it has worth or dignity (it is an end) and is not a means (the value of merchandise). And for Marx, as for the encyclical, the person, the subjectivity, the dignity of work ("living work") is the source of the value of all things—even of the thing called capital.

Thus there is complete agreement that the basis of the value of "objective work"—a properly Marxist category—is "subjective work"—also a Marxist category: work as subject and subjectivity, from the text cited from the Grundrisse and many others. The encyclical (with its primacy of the human being in the process of production, the primacy of the human being over things) asserts "the principle of the priority of labor over capital," inasmuch as capital is only objectified, accumulated work.

Finally, the encyclical criticizes the isolation of persons in capitalist society, from the viewpoint of the existence or "sign of the active person amidst a community of persons," which recalls a text from the Grundrisse: A free individuality, based on the universal development of individuals, subordinating their community [gemeinschaftliche] productivity. as social legacy constitutes the third stage. Community production is subordinated to individuals and controlled in community fashion by them as their own legacy. . It is the free exchange among individuals associated on the basis of appropriation and community control of the means of production.

For Marx, as for the encyclical, human toil ("living work," or the "subjectivity of work"), as individuality in community—that is, the human person of the worker—is the point of departure for an ethical critique. Categories like "means of production," "objective" work in the form of technology, or the statement that "capital cannot be separated from labor, and that in no wise can labor be set over against capital," refer to categories or distinctions strictly of Marx himself, which the encyclical uses to criticize, and rightly so, Stalinist, dogmatic, and economistic Marxism. The encyclical, like liberation theology, makes a certain categorical use of Marx, just as St. Thomas used Aristotle.>

2. Theology and Economic Criticism

Since its inception, liberation theology has used sociological and political categories, and ideological analysis. However, a theology of economics, in the sense of a theology of the sacramentality of the bread (the product) of work, in social relations, as a building or destroying of the Reign of God, is a relatively recent phenomenon. Franz Hinkelammert's book, The Ideological Weapons of Death, based on a theology of life, blazes new trails. The use of Marxism—at its proper level, the economic and philosophical—is complete, and occurs in a Christian faith that sacrifices nothing of its own tradition. Marx's criticism of fetishism is expressed in the same terms as the criticism of idolatry by the prophets and Jesus. Hinkelammert's rehabilitation of "fleshliness" (basar in Hebrew, sarx in Greek) is consistent with the Christian experience: The enormous value placed on real life in historical materialism has a critical correlate in the Christian message. In the Christian message, the resurrection means a resurrection of human beings in their real life. Contrary to the way the forces of domination absolutize values, esteem for real life has always been the starting point for the ideologies of the oppressed. The specific element of Marxism is praxis that leads to transcendence within real life. The specifically Christian element is hope in the potentialities of praxis, going beyond what can be calculated to be humanly achievable. The connecting link between them is real material [sacramental] life as the ultimate basis for all human life.

Nor is it a matter of separating Marxist philosophy which is rejected, from analysis, which is accepted. It is now a matter of a complete, integral rereading of Marx himself from a Christian, theological perspective. As Thomas Aquinas entered the field of "Aristotelianism" and undertook a creative task "from within" that field, so it is with this last chapter of the theology of liberation, the most recent and the most pregnant with possibilities.

For my part, my Ethics and Community has been an attempt at a Christian theological discourse that, while essentially biblical, is at the same time strictly Marxist. The concept of "community" in the Acts of the Apostles (2:42-47) and in the Grundrisse (and the later manuscripts, up to and including Das Kapital) guided my steps. Concepts (and categories) like person, social or community relation, sin and domination, alienation, work, value or "blood," product or "bread," are strictly traditional, and strictly in conformity with the "categories" constituted by Marx in the definitive period of his life (1857-80). A comparison of my La producción teórica de Marx and Ethics and Community will reveal that the epistemological hypothesis of the latter is the systematic use of Marx's categories (in the sense of the works published in MEGA by the Marxist Institute of East Berlin), with strict precision and a use of the biblical categories in their strict Hebrew, Greco-Christian sense. I have sought to get beyond a dualism (philosophy and Marx's analysis), but am clearly aware of the difference between the two discourses. Liberation theology, in the coming years, will be creatively internalized in these missionary and prophetical areas, to become more comprehensible in the popular world of the exploited.


The theology of liberation springs from, and learns in a disciplined manner from, the praxis of the Latin American people, the base Christian communities, the poor and oppressed. It justifies, first, the political commitment of militant Christians, thereupon to do the same with the entire praxis of the impoverished Latin American people. It is a critical theological discourse, then, which situates the traditional questions (sin, salvation, church, christology, sacraments, and so on) on a concrete, pertinent level. It does not reject the abstract (sin in itself, for example), but it situates it in concrete historical reality (the sin of dependency, for example).

It was on the basis of a need for a concrete critical theological reflection from a point of departure in the poor and oppressed that the use of the toolbox of the human sciences, especially Marxism, became necessary. The theology of liberation is the first theology in history to use these analytical instruments, and it takes them up on the strength of the demands of faith, avoiding economicism, a naive dialectical materialism, and an abstract dogmatism. Thus it can criticize as sin capital, dependency, and so forth. It fixes no political alternatives. That is not the function of theology. But it is careful not to fall into the trap of a "third way": neither capitalism nor socialism, but a Christian political solution. It does not thereby cease to be an orthodox (arising from orthopraxis), traditional (in the strong sense of the word) theology. In a missionary spirit, it enters into a dialogue with Marxism (that of Latin American political parties or movements, and even the Marxism of the countries of actual socialism, where its discourse is likewise understandable).

During certain decades, the prophetical positions of liberation theology were referred to as "the usual" by the perennial "wise." Like a Jeremiah jailed in his own Jerusalem, the theology of liberation will have to repeat the experience of criticism and persecution that the prophets had to undergo. "O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you slay the prophets and stone those who are sent to you!" (Luke 13:34).

— Translated by Robert R. Barr