Socialist Studies

Is Marxism Compatible With Liberation Theology?

In the BULLETIN OF THE MARX MEMORIAL LIBRARY (Number 142, pp 5-13), the theologian, Fr. Geoff Bottoms, was given space to argue a case for the compatibility of Marxism with Liberation Theology.

Is this so? Marxism is the science of social evolution. Three principal components constitute Marxism, a theory of history (popularly known as the materialist conception of history), a labour theory of value and surplus value, and a political concept of the class struggle.

What does Fr. Bottoms understand about Marxism? Nothing. Little or nothing is said of materialism, class exploitation and the class struggle. Instead he plays an old academic game of “reappraising” the classical Marxist texts which means ignoring what Marx wrote on religion and social alienation, the derivation of profit from surplus value, and the centrality of the class struggle in human history.

This is what Fr. Bottoms writes:

…it could be argued that Marx and Engels do not simply claim that a scientific view of society and history provides an alternative to religion as a means of human liberation but that a Marxist analysis of the situation can provide useful methodological pointers to action motivated in part by religious belief. That has been the proponents of liberation theology (p6).

Marx and Engels never said any such thing. For both of them, as for Socialists today, the working class were and are the social force to replace capitalism with Socialism. Moreover, Marx and Engels saw religion as a body of ideas which either supported the capitalist class or gave a psychological comfort for the symptoms of a class society.

Actions motivated by religious belief act as a barrier to a clear socialist understanding of capitalism and the reason why the profit system can never be made to work in the interests of all of society. Action motivated by religious belief turns attention away from the private property ownership of the means of production towards the effects of commodity production and exchange for profit.

Marx was quite clear about the dangers inherent in religion and the damage it inflicts on those who held to its beliefs. He also explained religion, first as a symptom of oppression and then as a fetish. In Marx’s early writings he wrote:

Religious suffering is, at one and the same time, the expression of real suffering and a protest against real suffering. Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people.

The abolition of religion as the illusory happiness of the people is the demand for their real happiness. To call on them to give up their illusions about their condition is to call on them to give up a condition that requires illusions.


And later, Marx likened the alienation associated with commodities to the fetishism of religious belief:

The religious reflex of the real world can …only then finally vanish, when the practical relations of everyday life offer to man none but perfectly intelligible and reasonable relations with regard to his fellowmen and to nature.
CAPITAL,Vol. 1, chapter 1: The Fetishism of Commodities

Socialism, which implies the abolition of buying and selling, the abolition of the wages system and the abolition of capital, liberates men and women from religion as well as from wage slavery. In a free and open classless society, where production takes place directly to meet social need, religion will be absent from the lives of millions of people. No more the degradation of charity and celibacy. No more mysticism. No more lives distorted by anti-scientific myths, no more pompous sermons and cloying morality.

Fr. Bottoms also brings up the old chestnut that primitive communism is found in the New Testament.

The science of anthropology, from Engels’s THE ORIGIN OF THE FAMILY,PRIVATE PROPERTY AND THE STATE and Henry Morgan’s ANCIENT SOCIETY onwards, shows that primitive communism was a form of social system prior to class society. But the New Testament was written during the slave societies of Egypt, Greece and Rome. The pious quotations found in the New Testament are directed at a spiritual world, not the social world. The Early Christian sects are no models for a Socialist society. The Acts of the Apostles, quoted by Fr Bottoms as support for a “New Testament Communism”, is based on spiritual advancement to Heaven, not a revolutionary change in society. Spartacus is preferable to any naive Christian thrown to the lions. Those slaves who died on crosses along the Appian Way to Rome deserve more historical respect than the deluded moralist on Calvary whose pious sermons would have the effect of retaining class systems rather than change them.

Marx did not start with the New Testament but with the material world in which men and women have to produce their existence. He started with real men and women as they relate to each other and to the means of production.

Men can be distinguished from animals by consciousness, by religion or anything else you like. They themselves begin to distinguish themselves from animals as soon as they begin to produce their means of subsistence - their food, shelter and clothing.

The basis of Marx’s theory of history is materialism. Thomas Huxley once wrote: “as long as we actually observe and think, we cannot possibly get away from materialism”. Marx quoted these words approvingly in a letter to Engels (12 December 1868) Marx was scientifically a materialist. He considered himself “a man of science”. Materialism leaves no room for religion. Marx declared: “I am a materialist and Hegel is an idealist..”(letter to Kugelmann, 6 March 1868)

Marx went on to say: “With me, …the ideal is nothing else than the material world reflected by the human mind, and translated into forms of thought” CAPITAL, Volume 1, Afterword to the second German edition).

While Engels, in summarising Feuerbach, wrote: “Matter is not a product of mind, mind itself is merely the highest form of matter” (LUDWIG FEUERBACH, Engels Selected Works, 1970, III/348).

And who does Fr. Bottoms call upon to justify his liberation theology? Here are a few names: Fidel Castro, The South African Communist Party, Pope Leo XIII, Pope Pius XI, and the Catholic Church’s teaching on social justice. An eccentric political and religious cocktail, but each and every one of them totally opposed to Marx’s ideas.

Fidel Castro rules over a dictatorship which favours Lenin and distorts Marx. Cuban capitalism exploits wage-labour; there are no free trade unions, and Socialist ideas against Castro and his regime are suppressed. The South African Communist Party bowed its head to Moscow for much of its existence, and accepts the Leninist doctrine that workers are incapable of understanding and establishing Socialism.

And as for the Catholic Church; it has always argued for a reconciliation of interests between capital and labour; preaching to employers to pay a ‘fair wage’ and to the workers to be content with “a fair day’s pay for a fair day’s work”. Where, in the actions of the Catholic Church, has there ever been any acknowledgement of the class struggle and the need for the working class to abolish the wages system?

In fact, successive Popes, in the interests of the ruling class in Latin America, where Liberation Theology had its spiritual home, have largely castrated the movement. The Catholic Church, like all institutional religion, is wedded to the interests of capitalism. It is also a vile and sinister organization. One of its offshoots is Opus Dei. “Let us bless pain, sanctify pain, and glorify pain”, said the movement’s founder, Jose Maria Escriva, canonised by the last pope. It’s an instruction some devotees honour by wearing a spiky garter around the top of their thighs CHANNEL 4, 11 December 2005).

Socialists do not use philosophical ideas against religion. The Socialist case against religion is a materialist one, grounded in cosmology, geology, biology, anthropology and history. Socialists work from the basis of materialism. Materialism rejects the existence of any supernatural entity, or anything outside or "above" nature. There is, in fact, no need for any such explanation for life and the universe - least of all today. Nature furnishes its own explanations and it furnishes them in great abundance.

Science has proved that the human species has developed - like every other species - over millions of years, and that life itself has evolved from inorganic matter. There cannot be a brain without a central nervous system, and there cannot be a central nervous system without a material body, blood, bones, muscles etc. In turn, the body must be sustained by food derived from a material environment. Modern genetics has given evidence which supports the materialist view of the world as have other sciences.

Modern genetic research has shown creationism and, by extension, the religions of Islam, Christianity, Judaism and so on to be false. Modern genetics, for example, has shown as being false the childish belief that every species was created separately and that people have souls.

Science also undercuts the illusion of life after death which gives false comfort to millions of wage slaves. In his book THE OXFORD MURDERS, the author, G Martinez, ridicules the resurrection of Christ:

…In the first twenty-four hours, after rigor mortis, the body starts to dry out. The blood stops exporting oxygen, the cornea turns cloudy, the iris and pupils become distorted, the skin shrivels. On the second day, the large intestine starts to putrefy, and the first green patches appear on the skin. The internal organs have shut down, tissues become soft. The third day, as decomposition progresses, gas bloats the abdomen and the limbs take on a green, marbled appearance. A compound of carbon and oxygen emanates from the body… By the end of the third day, Christ would have been a monstrous piece of waste, incapable of sitting up, foul smelling and blind. That is the truth… (p72-73).

Science has liberated men and women from religion. It is only the ruling-class ideas pumped out by the state, family and priests which chain the working class to this superstitious conservatism, and sustain the social evil it preaches. Darwin in natural science and Marx in social science long put paid to religion as a serious intellectual body of ideas.

To recap, the reasons why Marxism is incompatible with religion are fourfold. First, the materialist has his foot firmly on the ground while the religious thinker is a fanciful dreamer diverting workers’ attention away from the real world to imaginary worlds of gods and angels. Second, religion gives support for the ruling class by either teaching a social conservatism or a social reformism (which is what exactly Liberation Theology amounts to). Third, religion dehumanises men and women by making them servile believers in a creation of their own making; slaves to an abstraction. And fourth, religion not only blesses various nation states in peace and in war but, by insisting that there is a God to be revered and worshipped, it creates a spiritual leadership just as dangerous as a political one.

Religion, like nationalism and leadership, is an intellectual barrier to Socialism. Marx showed that workers have to think and act in their own interests. But religion keeps workers on their knees. Religion is a symptom facing workers in a society where the cause of the problem is the private ownership of the means of production.

That Fr. Bottoms should have been given a platform by the BULLETIN OF THE MARX MEMORIAL LIBRARY should come as no surprise since it is still controlled by the dead hand of the Communist Party of Great Britain who tend Lenin’s Clerkenwell shrine. Leninism - now there is a religious cult the Library needs liberating from.

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