More on Liberation Theology and Marxism

By Kozyn, Johannes C. T. | Monthly Review, November 1987 | Go to article overview
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More on Liberation Theology and Marxism

Kozyn, Johannes C. T., Monthly Review


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.

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