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  Number 318 | Enero 2008
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Latin America

Marxism, Post-Marxism, Liberation Theology (Part 1) Reflections for a Re-encounter

When Marxism and Liberation Theology found each other in Latin America they reached a utilitarian understanding and formed a pragmatic alliance. The Latin American Marxism of the time was Marxism-Leninism, which was strongly influenced by the official Soviet version reproduced and popularized in dogmatic handbooks riddled with certainties about the future of History. Liberation Theology, naïve and also filled with certainties, adopted this Marxism, which simplified the continent’s social reality. It is time to reflect on this naiveté. An opportunity exists for another encounter.

Andrés Pérez Baltodano

Liberation Theology’s reinterpretation of Jesus’ message is a landmark in Latin American historical development. It destabilized the providentialist religious culture that dominated the countries of the region and helped develop a humanist vision of the Christian God that responded to the aspirations and needs of Latin America’s poor.

The moment of encounter: ”Vulgar” Marxism

Liberation Theology, as we know, was drawn to Marxism in search of a system of sociological thought congruent with its interpretation of the social meaning of Christianity. Latin American writer and philosopher Enrique Dussel notes: “The double requirement of seeing the ‘political commitment’ to serve the oppressed, the “poor,” the people, in theological terms obliged the nascent theology to use analytical and interpretive tools other than the familiar ones of traditional theology.” Thus, he adds: “In the absence of an established philosophy suitable for the task, it had to seize on the Latin American critical social sciences because our continent had its ‘own’ questions to resolve.”

The social theory that Liberation Theology seized hold of was, in the main, Marxist. But the determinist and economistic Marxist thinking dominant in Latin America during the second half of the 20th century was incapable of grasping either the theoretical richness and relevance or the historical importance of Liberation Theology’s culturally transformative project.

The dominant Marxism in Latin America was a “vulgar” Marxism, which, according to C. Wright Mills, uses isolated elements of Marxist philosophy, sociology and political economy and treats them as representations of the system of thought elaborated by Marx. In other words, it is a reductionist Marxism that inevitably oversimplifies the complexity of social and historical phenomena.

In Latin America there were—and are—Marxists capable of treating Marx as a living thinker and not a departed saint, to use another of Mills’ expressions. The rich and sophisticated interpretations of Marx’s thinking produced by intellectuals such as Mariátegui and others, however, did not permeate the political culture of the Latin American revolutionary Left. It remained dominated by a superficial vision of social theory in general and of Marxism in particular. This explains the ease with which many Marxists—including so many leaders of the FMLN in El Salvador, the FSLN in Nicaragua and other revolutionary Left organizations in Latin America—could abandon this thinking after the collapse of the Soviet Union and the evaporation of possibilities for change in varoius countries of the region.

The poverty of prevailing Marxist thought in Latin America became a burden that, together with the attack by the Vatican and rightwing governments, impeded Liberation Theology’s theoretical development. Worse still, it dragged Liberation Theology along with it. Both systems of thought—Marxism and Liberation Theology—ended up on the same road, going through the same crisis of identity, purpose and direction.

“Revising” Marx

Two main phases can be identified in the development of Marxist thinking after Marx. The first is the period extending from his death to the triumph of the Bolshevik Revolution. During that time, revolutionary thinking and action nourished each other and appeared integrated as a force opposing capitalism. This of course doesn’t mean there were no differences over the interpretation of the theoretical value and political implications of Marx’s ideas. One such difference generated “revisionism”: a critical Marxist movement led by Eduard Bernstein that, beginning in 1895, questioned some central ideas in the thought of Marx and Engels.

The heart of Bernstein’s critique was his radical reconsideration of the value of dialectical and historical materialism. British political theorist David McLellan takes up this reconsideration in three components: a critique of Marx’s theory of value, his vision of European capitalist development and his position on the relevance and viability of revolutionary change in capitalist society.

Bernstein, McLellan explains, argued that the theory of value was an abstraction of little use. In addition, he noted that contrary to Marx’s predictions, conditions of life for the proletariat had improved. He also argued that, despite the emergence of cartels, trusts and monopolies, ownership of the means of production had expanded and diversified with the proliferation of small and medium businesses. All this led him to point out that the crisis of capitalism expected at any moment by Marx’s followers was not in evidence and that, rather than insisting the collapse of the system was inevitable, it was urgent to struggle to ensure that capitalist development would have a positive impact on workers’ living conditions. Instead of a revolution, he proposed a process of reforms with a revolutionary horizon.

Bernstein’s critique constituted a rejection of the vision of history as a process guided by a logic that inevitably led to the triumph of the classless society. Bernstein attributed the existence of these ideas in the work of Marx and Engels to their need to defend forcefully and even rigidly their materialist vision of history against the prevailing idealist visions of their time. In other words, the political intensity of the environment in which Marx and Engels moved, said Bernstein, impelled them to make categorical assertions that led to dogmatic interpretations of their thought.

“Calvinists without God”
but with a dogmatic sense of history

Bernstein saw the scientific pretensions in Marx’s preface to the first edition of Capital as examples of such categorical assertions. For example, Marx refers to “the natural laws of capitalist production,” then derives a unilinear history of humanity from the supposed existence of these laws: “The country that is more developed industrially only shows, to the less developed, the image of its own future.”

Bernstein called those who defended this determinist vision of history as “Calvinists without God” to highlight the dogmatic conviction of many Marxists’ perception of history. In response, he posited that the central value of Marx’s philosophy of history was its recognition of the materiality of human life and the material basis of society as factors conditioning historical development. Bernstein defended this philosophy, holding that it was a serious error either to trivialize it or to use it as the basis of a mechanically causal relationship between economic base and superstructure.

Karl Kautsky—officially recognized as the heir of Marx and Engels—took up the defense of the Marxist positions that Bernstein attacked. He refuted Bernstein’s arguments about the expansion of the capitalist base and upheld an orthodox vision of cartels and monopolies as forms of accumulation that intensified class relations and, as a result, announced the collapse of capitalism. With respect to the expansion of the middle class, Kautsky maintained that this sector would end up participating in the class struggle as part of the working class. In response to Bernstein’s critique of the idea of a scientific socialism founded in Marx’s historical materialism, Kautsky accused Bernstein of setting up a falsified vision of Marx’s thought for the purpose of criticizing it.

Bernstein, Kautsky, Lenin:
A rich debate on living theory

In a synthesis of Kautsky’s critique of Bernstein, Lenin captured the spirit of the debate while at the same time expressing his own theoretical tendencies, including the prevailing “scientific” socialist vision of his era. “Kautsky begins his counter-criticism with the question of method. He examines Bernstein’s objections to the materialist conception of history and shows that Bernstein confuses the concept of ‘determinism’ with that of ‘mechanism,’ that he confuses freedom of will with freedom of action, and without any grounds identifies historical necessity with the hopeless position of people under compulsion. The outworn accusation of fatalism, which Bernstein also repeats, is refuted by the very premises of Marx’s theory of history. Not everything can be reduced to the development of the productive forces, says Bernstein. Other factors ‘must be taken into consideration.’ Very well, answers Kautsky, that is something every investigator must do, irrespective of what conception of history guides him. Anyone who wants to make us reject Marx’s method, the method that has so brilliantly justified itself and continues to justify itself in practice, must take one of two paths: either he must reject altogether the idea of objective laws, of the necessity of the historical process, and in so doing abandon all attempts at providing a scientific basis for sociology; or he must show how he can evolve the necessity of the historical process from other factors (ethical views, for example), he must show this by an analysis that will stand up to at least a remote comparison with Marx’s analysis in Capital.”

For Lenin, Bernstein’s ideas were an attack on Marxist theory, which Lenin believed served directly “to educate and organize the vanguard class in modern society, indicate the task facing this class and demonstrate the inevitable replacement (by virtue of economic development) of the present regime by a new order.” Note in this quote Lenin’s instrumentalist vision of Marxism; that is, his concern for the theory’s practical utility.

Rosa Luxemburg also participated in the Bernstein-Kautsky debate. She criticized the political strategy proposed by Bernstein to improve the living conditions of the working class within the capitalist system and accused him of making the reformist proposal an end in itself. In other words, she accused Bernstein of proposing a reformist strategy that, she believed, would eliminate the possibility of replacing the capitalist model once and for all.

Regardless of one’s assessment of the different positions in this debate over “revisionism,” the Marxism revealed in that debate is clearly a living theory in a state of development. Neither Bernstein’s objections to Marxist determinism nor the fears of Kautsky, Luxemburg and Lenin can easily be easily discredited. They represent a set of concerns that, at the time they were expressed, were an integral part of Marxist thought and practice.

Revolution in Russia: Another stage

With the triumph of the Bolshevik Revolution, the development of Marxism entered a second phase in which the theoretical effervescence and its intimate relationship with political practice were significantly reduced. From that moment on, the practical political needs Lenin faced and the solidarity many Marxists around the world felt with history’s first Marxist socialist experiment considerably reduced the intellectual energy of this current of thought.

But critical debate over Marx’s theoretical, ethical, and philosophical thought didn’t end. It continued—ever more domesticated by the exigencies of power—in the debates of the First and Second International. And it led to important contributions in the work of figures such as Trotsky, Lukács, Gramsci and others belonging to the continental European and Anglo-American academic worlds. Many third world Marxists, among the best known of which are José Carlos Mariátegui and Samir Amín, also made important contributions to this debate.

Marxism-Leninism is born
of Marx’s contradictions

The Marxism that had the greatest impact on the development of the Left in Latin America was the Marxism-Leninism popularized by the Soviet Union’s organs of propaganda and political education. That Marxism transformed Marx’s thought into a method and discourse of domination and his extremely rich and insightful ideas into a method and discourse for organizing and legitimating power. In carrying out this transformation, Soviet Marxism took advantage of two contradictions in Marx’s thinking.

First of all, Marx articulated a vision of “man” as a being capable of constructing his own destiny through praxis. At the same time, as German political philosopher Eric Voegelin has noted, Marx articulated a vision of history as a process imbued with a logic of its own, a vision that, inevitably, undermined the force of human reason. Marx never resolved this contradiction. Rather, he accentuated it every time he helped solidify among his followers the perception that history is ruled by “natural” social laws, or that in the last instance tensions and contradictions in the economic base of society determine humanity’s development.

Real socialism, faced with the worldly problems of power, “resolved” the contradiction between individual and historical reason by crushing the individual and assigning the intelligence that guides human development to a supra-individual and abstract concept of history. In so doing, it situated the meaning of history on a plane that transcends humanity.

The concept of history as a movement with its own rationality undermines the force and value of individual reason and favors the construction of bureaucratic apparatuses that, with their powerful coercive instruments, assume responsibility for demonstrating—in practice—the existence of an “irreversible” historical progression. In the experience of real socialism, then, Marx’s philosophy, with its inevitable contradictions, was replaced by Marxist truisms and, above all, by a political pragmatism that privileges action over thinking and conspiracy over reflection. Thus, the concept of praxis acquires a strictly instrumental sense, and is converted with scandalous frequency into a state-granted license not to think.

The second contradiction that facilitated the political instrumentalization of Marx’s thought comes from the coexistence of a broad materialist perspective with a reductionist one in the work of this great German-Jewish thinker and his brilliant collaborator Friedrich Engels. The reductionist version is determinist and economistic. It perceives society as a totality determined by society’s mode of production, a concept understood, fundamentally, as economic production. Culture and social institutions appear as derivatives determined by the economy.

Nevertheless, Marx’s work also contains a “broad” vision of materialism, emphasizing the economy’s weight on social organization and historical development. In Marx’s work, the material transcends the economic. The material aspect is life, existence and the economic, cultural and even spiritual strategies and means that humanity uses to ensure its individual and social existence. This broader vision would be salvaged in various forms over the years by theorists such as Gramsci, Raymond Williams, Rodolfo Mondolfo, Chantal Mouffe and Ernesto Laclau.

Engels himself recognized the above-mentioned contradiction in his famous 1890 letter to Joseph Bloch: “Marx and I are ourselves partly to blame for the fact that the younger people sometimes lay more stress on the economic side than is due to it. We had to emphasize the main principle vis-à-vis our adversaries, who denied it, and we had not always the time, the place or the opportunity to give their due to the other elements involved in the interaction.”

Soviet Marxism-Leninism promoted the determinist version of the causal model in Marx’s work. That determinism would reduce politics to obedient and disciplined acceptance of the party’s scientific reading of reality.

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