The Availability of Utopian Thought
— Terry Murphy
The War of Gods: Religion and Politics in Latin America
by Michael Löwy (Verso, 1996) 163 pages, $18 paperback.
IN THIS COMPARATIVELY short book, Michael Löwy offers an analysis of the history, theories and struggles of liberation theology in Latin America since the late 1950s.
Löwy's book is a continuation of his previous work, within the broad field of the sociology of culture, on the dialectical relationship between religious radicalism and revolutionary theory, “the links between religious and political cultures, in a context of modernization and intense social and political conflict.” (The War of Gods, 2. All subsequent page references are to this work unless noted.)
Two of Löwy's previous studies, Georg Lukacs: From Romanticism to Bolshevism (1979) and Redemption and Utopia (1992), examined the cross-currents of religion, particularly libertarian-cum-mystical trends in Judaism, and politics in Central Europe between the two world wars. The major focus of his new book is Roman Catholicism, an interest which had previously emerged only in his discussion of the youthful religious enthusiasms of thinkers like Ernst Bloch and Georg Lukacs in the studies just mentioned.
Spiritual Dimensions of Revolution
The justification of this concern with religion and politics is three-fold. The first is Löwy's long-term engagement with a critique of positivism as the dominant current in mainstream sociology, including the new field of cultural studies.
The second is his attempt to reclaim a spiritual or Utopian dimension within revolutionary Marxist thought, both as a counter-weight to Stalinist and social democratic scientism and as a necessary part of any attempt to change the world.
The third is to offer a revolutionary Marxist analysis of the history of what Lowy prefers to call “liberationist Christianity,” this “vast social movement . . . with far-reaching political consequences.” (2) To this end, one chapter is devoted to concrete studies of the development of liberation theology in three countries: Brazil, El Salvador and Nicaragua.
This approach allows readers to test out the merits of the initial thesis both against the evidence Löwy presents and against their own knowledge of the recent history of these countries.
Löwy begins his book by asking the rhetorical question: Is religion still, as Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels considered it to be, “a bulwark of reaction, obscurantism and conservatism”? (4) Generally speaking, he suggests, it is.
Whether we take as our example the various fundamentalisms in the world, or the generally Protestant evangelical Electronic Church or the Roman Catholic hierarchy, we can see that religious thought plays a unhelpful, regressive role in both political and social life.
Yet the correctness of this general analysis finds itself at something of a loss when confronted by the emergence of liberation theology in Latin America. The extent of revolutionary participation by priests and nuns and of lay figures, clearly motivated by a religious spiritualism, in Latin American revolutionary politics contradicts the nineteenth century expectation of Marx and Engels that religion would henceforth play only a reactionary social role.
The unexpected emergence of liberationist Christianity, Löwy contends, demands a rethinking from revolutionary theorists. The dominant (and somewhat simplified) Marxist positions, according to which religion is nothing but a mystical fog (Lenin) or a mere cloak for otherwise naked (reactionary) class interests (Engels) are simply inadequate to explain this social phenomenon.
The War of Gods needs to be placed in its proper context of Löwy's long-term project to construct a revolutionary Marxist theory which is methodologically distinct from positivist social science, a theoretical school which Löwy sees as being finally complicit with the status quo, whether that be capitalist or Stalinist.
In an earlier untranslated study entitled Paysages de la Verite (1985), for example, Löwy put forward his historically-grounded critique of positivism, including a discussion of how this pseudo-science has derailed much Marxist analysis, including not only the work of certain theorists of the Second and the Stalinized Third Internationals but also the more contemporary current of Althusserianism, among others.
The upshot of that work was to make necessary a break with the rhetoric and attempted practice of a Marxist cultural studies modelled on that of the hard sciences, with the assumptions, postulates and so-called social “laws” of mainstream positivist sociology.
The War of Gods thus continues the methodological innovation of Löwy's more recent studies, such as Redemption and Utopia, in analyzing social phenomena by means of concepts and terms drawn from art, literature, religion and various historically dissident intellectual practices, such as alchemy.
Löwy's main argument is not merely that the whole practice of science is fetishized in industrial-capitalist society, nor that science as a social practice is intimately bound up with the reproduction of exploitative human relations. It is rather that the attempt to extend the scientific method to the investigation of society is fundamentally flawed.
As Lucien Goldmann, Michael Löwy's former teacher, has argued, the whole idea of viewing society as an “object” of study involves the philosophical error identified by Marx in the third Thesis on Feuerbach (1846). Unlike the study of micro-organisms or the physical properties of inanimate objects, any sociologist is necessarily part of the human totality he or she studies.
Against the claims of positivist sociology, the central contention of thinkers like Goldmann and Löwy is that an objective, value-free science of society is impossible because society is riven by enormous human contradictions.
In claiming to be “objective,” sociology merely reproduces the dominant bourgeois viewpoint. As Löwy quotes Max Weber in his introduction: “the ultimately possible attitudes to life are irreconcilable, and hence their struggle can never be brought to an end. Thus it is necessary to make a decisive choice.” (2)
The Idolatries of Capitalism
The title of the book is a reference to two of these irreconcilable attitudes. The first is the struggle among the various conceptions of God present in Latin America today, radical or reactionary, Catholic or Protestant, life-enhancing or life-denying.
The second is germane to liberationist Christianity itself: It is the choice or “war of gods” between an authentic religious conviction oriented toward liberation, and the worship of the various idols of capitalist society, whether the idol be money, consumer goods, militarism, nationalism or the market.
In this latter sense, Löwy argues rightly that liberationist Christianity has affinities with the similar rhetoric to be found in the writings of Marx against commodity fetishism, the rule of the market and the swollen status of money.
This rejection of science is a rejection of the scientific method (though not the rejection of the criterion of truth as the intellectual guide for investigation).
According to Goldmann, science moves from the simple to the complex, from the isolation of the basic unit of a given field of inquiry to the investigation of the complex compounds built upon this foundation. Science maintains that the whole can be explained in terms of the parts of which it is constituted.
In contrast, the dialectical method in social studies moves from the abstract to the concrete, through a series of approximations to the truth. Truth in society, unlike the truths of classical science, is a historical and value-ridden phenomenon which resists a once-and-for-all articulation.
The dialectical process involves a constant movement from the whole to the parts and back again. This difference in methodology helps to explain why Marxist dialectics in its analysis utilizes the justified abstractions of historically determined social classes and social groups, whereas mainstream sociology, with its scientific outlook, is much more likely to use the common sense basic units of the individual, the family or the nation.
The Value of “Elective Affinity”
There is a major consequence to what may seem at first blush a rather esoteric debate. The history of science has involved the rejection of an enormous quantity of potentially useful ideas, not least for the development of cultural studies. What may be appropriate in the analysis of inanimate entities by the laws of physics or chemistry may be counter-productive, even utterly useless, in the investigation of human beings motivated to varying degrees by passion, reason and social interest.
Moreover, positivist sociology has a bias toward the rejection of ideas that may help to change reality because of its orientation to the status quo and the “sociological facts.” One of these ideas, according to Löwy, is that of “elective affinity.”
“The concept of elective affinity . . . stems from an alchemic doctrine that sought to explain the fusion of bodies in terms of the affinity of elements in their chemical composition.” (70)
This concept, which was taken over by Weber via Goethe from alchemy to explain the relationship between the Protestant ethic and the spirit of capitalism, is still virtually unknown in Anglo-American sociology—in spite of the fact that the concept is used extensively in Weber's most celebrated work.
The positivist sociologists like Talcott Parsons responsible for the translation of Weber's work into English replaced “elective affinity” with neutral approximations such as “correlation” or “close connection” in describing the relationship between the Protestant ethic and the capitalist spirit.
In doing so, they were probably motivated by the belief that they were being more faithful to the “scientific” quality of Weber's work, construing that adjective rather more narrowly than the German thinker himself did.
Marxism and Religion
What, according to Löwy, is the basic orientation of Marxism to the phenomenon of religion? In the first place, it is necessary to dispense with the dominant idea among liberal and anti-communist commentaries on Marxism, according to which Marx's sole thought on the subject was that religion is “the opium of the people.”
As Löwy notes, Marx wrote these words in an article on Hegel's Philosophy of Right in 1844, while Marx was still a left Hegelian; and the general idea is widespread in the writings of a large number of other left Hegelians and near-contemporaries (Kant, Feuerbach, Bruno Bauer, Moses Hess, Herder, Heinrich Heine).
Strictly speaking then, the proposition that religion is the opium of the people is not a “Marxist” one at all. Furthermore, this mainstream view actually simplifies the more complex view of left Hegelianism, which viewed religion as both an expression of present intolerable conditions and as a protest against these conditions.
Left Hegelian thought, in other words, unlike liberal or anti-communist commentary, is dialectical. In addition, this left Hegelian view was a major contribution to understanding of why people became religious in the first place: It pointed out that religion was an articulation of the social experience of alienation.
In contrast with the Enlightenment view of religion, the left Hegelians saw that believers embrace religion not because they have been duped by a clerical conspiracy but rather because they have recognized at some level the injustice of the existing social order.
Obviously, it does not follow from this that all believers consider the social order to be changeable. On the contrary, religion compensates for its perceived relative permanence and injustice.
A Marxist analysis of religion actually begins with Marx and Engels' The German Ideology (1846), where Marx began to settle accounts with the left Hegelian view of things. This study put forward the basic proposition that religion is one of the major forms of ideology or intellectual production. As such, it is a social product, and is involved in the struggle among the various social classes.
On the basis of this new conception of religion, Engels, in The Peasant Wars in Germany, noted the possibility of religious thought dividing along class lines, separating different social classes or class fractions, including the various layers of the clergy, into radically hostile interpretations of the Gospel.
Indeed, Engels saw three class-based interpretations of the Bible coexisting in the 16th century: that of the feudal Catholic hierarchy, represented at its summit by the Pope; that of the bourgeois Protestant clerics, such as Calvin and Luther; and that of the radical plebeian sects, such as the Anabaptists and the later English Diggers and Levellers.
Various thinkers of the early Second International built upon this pioneering analysis of Marx and Engels, penning a number of important studies before interest in theoretical work of a Marxist character waned with the aging, renegacy or death of its major thinkers (Bruno Bauer, Karl Kautsky, Antonio Gramsci, Rosa Luxemburg).
With the onset of Stalinism in the Soviet Union from the late 1920s making innovative research difficult, the major focus of Marxist interest in religion shifted westward to the thinkers of the Frankfurt School.
However, the serious study of religion among European Marxists dropped off following the Second World War and the apparent eclipse of West European religiosity (with the single and important exception of Lucien Goldmann—who was originally from Romania).
The Challenge of Liberation
Only with the phenomenal growth of liberation theology in Latin America since the late 1950s has serious research into this subject recommenced. As usual, theory lagged well behind social practice—if we take the death of Father Camilo Torres, a Colombian priest killed by the Army while fighting with the guerrillas in 1966, as the signal that something new was happening in the world.
It is probably significant that Michael Löwy, the Brazilian-born son of Austrian Jews forced to flee Hitler's army in the late 1930s, should be the author of this major Marxist study.
The waning of interest in the relationship between religion and politics in the deeply secularized societies of the North Atlantic has had its price. In my opinion, this price is the consolidation of an unhelpful and undialectical approach to the problem, which may be summed up in three basic propositions:
(i) Liberation theology is basically an unstable mixture of the valid social practice of Christian workers and peasants and their religious ideology which is inherently regressive and idealist. With increased modernization, the Christian dimension of the phenomenon, which is distracting and unhelpful anyway, will gradually recede.
(ii) Liberation theology may be satisfactorily explained in Marxist terms as a social and class polarization between the Christian workers and peasants who support the revolution and the Church which does not. This social fact is explicable in the light of antagonistic class interests, not religious conviction. (Since everyone in the debate claims to be a Christian, religion cannot be the main factor in producing the split.)
(iii) Liberation theology, like all previous rebellious religious movements, dreams of deliverance in a Paradise after death; it is only the injection of the ideas of modern socialism that orients it to the perspective of achieving a Paradise on Earth.
One of the antagonists of Michael Löwy's analysis in this book is certainly a revolutionary who supports one or all of these propositions.
How does Löwy respond to the challenge represented by the above position? In a brief historical survey of the Marxist analysis of religion, Löwy enumerates a number of pointers guiding his research, united by the attention each pays to the genuinely spiritual quality of religious experience and the links of this ethical spirituality to social action.
The main dissident ideas that he draws out are as follows:
(1) Religion is the most gigantic form of organized Utopian thought ever devised by human beings. In other words, religion precedes revolutionary Marxism as an ideological attempt to provide a coherent response to the main questions of human existence (Gramsci).
Its continuing power as a form of social consciousness in class-divided societies (with their attendant need for Utopian or compensatory thought for the existence of social injustice) up to the present time should therefore be comprehensible.
(2) Marxism is a continuation of the millenarian tradition established by the various religious sects, like the Anabaptists and the early Christians who sought to establish Heaven on Earth (Bloch).
Bloch continued this parallel analysis by accepting that Marxism was then best understood in terms of a millenarian “moment of truth.” Bloch emphasized that the radical plebeian Christian sects had attempted to create classless societies as an integral part of their religious convictions (and not merely as a cloak for their naked subordinate class interests).
Why Do We Struggle?
(3) Marxism and religious convictions are examples of a Pascalian wager* on the future: a classless one for Marxism (and the radical plebeian sects); heavenly salvation, with the exception of the millenarian tradition, for the religious believer. As such, Marxism is also a form of human faith, a form of consciousness which is based on intra-individual values and a belief in a more desirable future (Lucien Goldmann).
Unlike mainstream religious belief, Marxism makes its wager on the basis of a historical materialist understanding of objective possibility (rather than historical inevitability or Divine intervention).
Part of this belief that socialism is possible comes from an analysis of the experience of the various historical attempts to establish a more just social order. Like a belief in Christianity, however, Marxism is not refutable solely by reference to its history of failure, by rational argument that takes the status quo as given or by its lack of widespread social acceptance.
In spite of these objections, the decision to struggle for socialism can be adequately explained because the ultimate possible attitudes to life involve an exclusive choice.
(4) A Marxist understanding of certain intellectual dispositions, including religious conviction, is more properly understood in terms of a social group's entire existential condition rather than simply in terms of its immediate or even long term class interests (Goldmann).
In other words, the “color” of a social group's outlook on the world (its orientation, for example, to a tragic vision of the world, to technocratic optimism, romantic nostalgia or religious conviction) is best explored with the concept of “totality” rather than “reflection.”
The decision of many bourgeois women to become nuns before a given historical date, to take an obvious example, is comprehensible in these terms—and probably not otherwise. (What could be the long-term bourgeois purpose of rejecting the world?)
Intellectual production has a relative autonomy; much mistaken revolutionary analysis results from ignoring this fundamental aspect of historical materialism.
What is Liberationist Christianity?
What is liberation theology, or what Löwy prefers to call liberationist Christianity? Löwy suggests that the basic set of beliefs may be summed up in terms of eight main ideas:
(1) The fight against idolatry (not atheism) as the main enemy of religion—that is, against the new idols of death adored by the new Pharaohs, the new Caesars and the new Herods: Mammon, Wealth, the Market, National Security, the State, Military Force, “Western Christian Civilization.”
(2) Historical human liberation as the anticipation of the final salvation in Christ, the Kingdom of God.
(3) A critique of traditional dualistic theology as the product of Platonic Greek philosophy, and not of the biblical tradition in which human and divine history are distinct but inseparable.
(4) A new reading of the Bible, giving significant attention to passages such as Exodus, seen as a paradigm of an enslaved people's struggle for liberation.
(5) A sharp moral and social indictment of dependent capitalism as an unjust and iniquitous system, as a form of structural sin.
(6) The use of Marxism as a social-analytical instrument in order to understand the causes of poverty, the contradictions of capitalism and the forms of class struggle.
(7) The preferential option for the poor and solidarity with their struggle for self-liberation.
(8) The development of Christian base communities among the poor as a new form of Church and as an alternative to the individualist way of life imposed by the capitalist system. (35)
Elective Affinity and Marxist Analysis
It is not difficult to see the problems that this particular set of beliefs poses for the orthodox radical analysis cited above. The strange medley of Marxist and Christian themes within a unified social vision would seem to defy any attempt to offer a simple argument in terms of the reflection of class interests.
Even the attempt to argue for a division between the church elite and its popular base seems too crude, given the widespread popularity of liberationist Christianity among not only the generally poor church believers but also among significant layers of the bishops, Jesuits, priests and nuns.
The specific critique that liberationist theology directs at traditional dualistic theology also places it firmly in the tradition of millenarian thought (oriented toward a profound transformation of life on earth), rather than that of mainstream religious consciousness with its orientation to a Life after Death.
This is one of the reasons for Löwy's employment of the concept of elective affinity, his name for the strange attraction in Latin America between forms of rebellious Roman Catholic thought and revolutionary Marxism.
The concept of elective affinity represents for Löwy an affirmation of the centrality and efficacy of human thought and desire, which mainstream sociology, with its pretensions to scientific status, effectively devalues.
The idea that two currents of ideas, like Marxism and religion, could be attracted to each other thus sounds strange to the sociological ear. But ideas are not objects; they are inherently social phenomena produced by social classes and groups motivated by various interests, including that of discovering the truth.
An extended discussion of elective affinity is absent from The War of Gods, being the subject of an intricately and elegantly argued chapter in Redemption and Utopia.
The spin on the idea of elective affinity in Löwy's new book is, however, to demonstrate a potential not of attraction but rather of repulsion between Roman Catholicism and the spirit of capitalism. Without going into too much detail, the possibility of elective affinity among previously distinct intellectual traditions is related to the creation of a social space in which both become available for free discussion and elaboration.
Latin America, according to Löwy, with its traditions of both popular religiosity and revolutionary insurgency, became such a social space, especially following the Cuban Revolution and the concomitant changes in the Vatican with the election of John XXIII.
Lowy lists a number of possible factors:
(1) The impersonal nature of market relations is antagonistic toward the idea of Christian brotherhood, interpersonal sympathy and communal feeling (Weber). Over the question of interest rates, the Roman Catholic Church, during the period of the rise of capitalism, waged a long and ultimately unsuccessful struggle over the question of whether ethical Christian or capitalist economic values should regulate the economy.
Though this struggle was decisively lost, it has produced as its continuing legacy, evident as recently as John Paul II's speeches in Eastern Europe in 1997, the need for charitable love for one's neighbor and the promotion of the idea of “capitalism with a human face”.
(2) The deep hostility of all hierocratic (priest-dominated) religions to an economic system which cannot be ethically regulated (Weber).
(3) Capitalist rationality offers no room for a charitable orientation to other human beings. The Roman Catholic church has therefore tended to support patriarchalism (unequal but reciprocal social obligations) as against the impersonal relations of dependence dictated by the market (Weber).
(4) Contradictorily, the Catholic Church has also supported prophecy, which is hostile to the idea of patriarchal ties because of its leap across the generations in its predictions of the future (Weber).
Weber contended, and Löwy concurs, that the notion of prophetic justice is an enemy of patriarchal ties of dependence, especially that of the landlord over the peasant community (Weber). This social phenomenon is of enormous importance in the development of liberationist Christian notions of social justice and of the vision of a future society.
A Church of the Poor
(5) The notion of Christianity as the Church of the Poor and of Jesus Christ as the poor man whom the believer is obligated to help, an idea contained in the Gospel according to Saint Matthew.
This idea has usually been interpreted as implying the need for charitable attention to the poor. However, it has also inspired the various social movements of the poor over the centuries that have rebelled in the name of social justice.
It is also of crucial importance in the doctrines of liberationist Christianity in a continent marked by what Löwy describes as a form of “dependent capitalism” with attendant “massive poverty, institutionalized violence, [and] popular religiosity.” (31)
(6) The general hostility of the Catholic Church to modern bourgeois society is indicative of its preference for a feudal corporative past and for stable hierarchical relations. Its criticisms of modern bourgeois society have therefore been overwhelmingly reactionary, including the anti-semitic idea of the Jew as the scapegoat for the existence of capitalism.
Nevertheless, as a form of anti-positivist romantic thought, a structure of sensibility expressing hostility to modern bourgeois society in the name of absent, past values, it may take on a variety of possible politics, including revolutionary-romantic ones (Löwy).
(7) The emergence of a left-wing Catholic culture at the dawn of the twentieth century, at the very moment when the Roman Catholic church was seen to reconcile itself permanently to the existence of capitalism as a social system, particularly in France.
Löwy contends that this left-wing culture, personified by Charles Peguy and continuing to this day, is precisely the eruption of a revolutionary romantic rejection of modern bourgeois society.
Problems For Analysis
Though I am generally favorable to Löwy's interpretation, there are nevertheless a number of problems that need to be addressed, from within the framework of a positive critical assessment.
In the first place, how secure is his central assumption? Is it necessary for Marxists to examine the specificities of religious belief in explaining a radical turn in its core social assumptions? Or should we prefer a more orthodox account in which the balance of class forces and basic class interests are enough to explain this situation?
If Löwy is right, why haven't other religions generated such movements? If this is because such a development is essentially a late twentieth century development, what are the potentials for any given religion suddenly generating equally far-reaching movements against oppression in the name of religious liberation? What are the prospects for such a movement coming from within Islam, for example?
Löwy is committed to the belief that some forms of religious thought are more conducive than others to this kind of development. What then are the essential elements of religious thought which would allow for such a revolutionary mutation? Do more recent religious movements lack the latent anti-capitalist virus of medieval Christianity which Löwy implicitly identifies as the source of this mutation?
I raise this last question because on occasion Lowy's discussion on the ethical exclusiveness of Catholic doctrine seems to me excessive. Most forms of Christian belief (Catholicism, Lutheranism, Calvinism) have demonstrated resistance to the lack of ethical regulation implied by reliance on the market; and Löwy acknowledges in his work on Lukacs that Protestant spiritualism may also be a route to revolutionary consciousness.
When viewed historically, however, Protestantism, and especially Calvinism, appears to facilitate the dominance of the market values it elsewhere protests by its insistence on the possible salvation of the individual soul in relation to God and the values of thrift, hard work and self-discipline.
This elevation of the individual is in contrast to the more collective assumptions concerning salvation implied in medieval Christian thought. In other words, it seems to me that it is the bureaucratic structure of the medieval Catholic Church that represents the real obstacle to the internalization of capitalist values—rather than the more widely experienced Christian feeling that the market is unethical.
The further reason why I think this point must be stressed is that otherwise it would seem difficult to understand why Florence and Antwerp, two thoroughly Catholic cities, played such important roles in the early history of capitalism. Roman Catholicism, in other words, is more resistant to capitalism not because it is more Christian but because it is more bureaucratic than Protestantism.
There is a further dimension to this question of the lack of antipathy between Catholicism and the spirit of capitalism. The first time that Löwy employed the idea of cultural antipathy was in his book on Lukacs's early thought.
In the chapter of that book devoted to an examination of the reasons why intellectuals become revolutionaries, Löwy argued that there is frequently an antipathy between intellectuals as a social category and the spirit of capitalism. The basis of this antipathy is the tendency of intellectuals to live in a world of qualitative values (truth, beauty, justice, good and evil) as opposed to the quantitative world of capitalism. (Georg Lukacs, 19)
Within the broad category of German intellectuals at the turn of the century, Löwy ascribed a special role to the sons of Protestant ministers in the development of anti-capitalist ideas. Quoting Raymond Aron, Löwy wrote:
Even if [these ministers' sons] lose their religious faith, they frequently retain a certain feeling for religion as the highest form of spiritual aspiration . . . . This kind of religion without God leads to a recognition of the role of the emotions, which cannot be reduced to reason, and frequently inspires a protest against capitalist, rationalized society. (Georg Lukacs, 23n10)
Löwy also specifically pointed to the absence of such intellectuals in Catholic countries, without commenting on the possibility of anti-capitalist ideas developing among the Catholic religious orders of brothers and sisters that are present. (Georg Lukacs, 22n10)
The question then arises: how much has Lowy's analysis of religious radicalism altered in the years between Georg Lukacs and The War of Gods? Are these two different anti-capitalist sensibilities, one for (Protestant) intellectuals, the other for (Catholic) workers and peasants and their allies?
Does Löwy's analysis involve a (justifiable) shift in the relative importance he attaches to ideas and intellectual inquiry in the formation of a revolutionary world view on the basis of religious sensibility? And how is this related to class background and experience?
Progress and the Excluded
In his new book, Löwy quotes the French theologian Christian Duquos, arguing that the European progressive theologies consider “exclusion (of the poor and of Third world countries) as temporary or accidental; the future belongs to the West and to the economic, social and political progress it brings. Liberation theology, by contrast, thinks of history from the reverse viewpoint, that of the defeated and excluded, the poor (in the broad sense, including oppressed classes, races and cultures), who are the bearers of universality and redemption.” (65)
Does this new insight modify the previous analysis of European revolutionary intellectuals? Is Löwy now suggesting that because of their broad commitment to the European ideology of progress, even revolutionary intellectuals formed in this tradition fall short of the perspective of the defeated of history?
Some of these questions are related to more serious problems with Löwy's work from the point of view of developing a genuinely dialectical methodology in the 1990s.
The version of liberationist Christianity offered here is one of a set of canonical writings by various Latin American theorists. Not a single writer mentioned by Löwy in his initial list of major liberationist theologians is a woman.
Is this because there are no women liberationist theorists? Lowy mentions repeatedly that women make up a majority of this social movement, particularly in the Christian base communities and that nuns in particular play crucial roles in the movement. Yet his discussion of the issues of gender and sexuality is limited.
Löwy notes the existence of just one book edited by a woman, Elsa Tamez, on the subject of women and liberation theology (and even here it would seem that all the contributors are men). He suggests that women are “beginning to speak out, and that the voices of women theologians, religious and lay activists such as Elsa Tamez, Yvone Gebara, Maria Jose Rosario Nunes and Maria Clara Bingemar are being heard”; but he documents this only by reference to “the double oppression of Latin America women, and the multiple forms of discrimination they suffer in society as a whole and in the Church itself. (53-54)
The specifics of this critique of double oppression, discrimination and the Church remain a mystery. This is troublesome given that sexuality, to take an obvious example, is a key area where, as Löwy admits, even a progressive church like that in Brazil still defends “traditionalist and backward positions” and where such conservatism can be “a matter of life and death for millions of Latin American women.” (53)
In the absence of a coherent female-dominated position on sexuality within liberationist Christianity or in The War of Gods, it would seem that sexuality still marks the outer limits of its social radicalism.
A second neglected area of concern is the religions of the Caribbean and African diaspora (as well as the indigenous religions of the Americas). Despite the space constraints, this is nevertheless strange because it is not difficult to see the similarity between certain of the ideas of liberationist Christianity and Rastafarianism, for example, as forms of Utopian religious belief.
Löwy does not address this issue at all, nor the previous compelling use of the Bible by African Americans as a narrative of enslavement and possible liberation in America-Egypt.
Progress and Destruction
This relates to a wider issue which Lowy does deal with: the attitude that liberationist Christians have taken to the arrival of the Europeans in the Americas. Indeed, this whole issue may now stand as a source of potential division within revolutionary Marxism itself.
My own view is that the conquest of the Americas by European capitalism represented a dialectic of overall technical advancement and absolute social regression, from the standpoint of the egalitarian societies that previously existed here. This dialectic is what the conquerors call “progress.”
The subsequent history of resistance to this “progress” is also the attempt to establish what we may usefully call, after Jose Mariategui, “Amero-Indian socialism,” where this latter is defined principally by the criteria of equality, ecology and present possibility rather than by the capitalist criteria of development, technology and the future.
In other words, the slogan of “indigenous socialism or capitalist barbarism” has been justified not from 1959 or 1910, but from 1492 itself. It is in this way that millenarian rebellions prior to the Mexican Revolution may be analyzed as something more significant than forms of social despair occasioned by the impossibility of achieving communism (as Kautsky viewed them).
Löwy and liberationist Christianity seem to me to come close to an acceptance of this basic position, one which is at odds with Marx's early begrudging admiration of the impact of European colonialism on the Americas in The Communist Manifesto.
It would also be interesting to know Löwy's views on the social origins of religion itself. What weight should be given to death, ignorance of natural processes, the regulation of certain aspects of social life (particularly sexuality) and injustice in explaining why humans have felt the need for religious belief at all?
Löwy passes over these issues in silence; and his pro forma recognition on the centrality of the Mass within liberation theology strikes me as truncated and rather forced. Some words on the role of mystery and ritual in human lives might have been helpful here.
Unlike most other commentators, including the majority of hostile ones, Löwy believes that liberation theology, this volatile mixture of politics and religion, has a future, albeit an embattled one. He does not really spell out why he believes this to be the case, merely stressing the empirical evidence of the recent history of Haiti and Chiapas.
Given the eclipse in the dominance of Marxism in Latin American intellectual life, such citation is not an argument that will convince the skeptical.
Intellectuals and Power
A final set of critical issues flow from a consideration of some of the previous points, and relates to the concept of world view which Löwy takes over from his old teacher, Lucien Goldmann.
If we are to maintain that writers and intellectuals are less representative in and of themselves than they are representative of the class or social group to which they belong, it is necessary to note the implications of this in a world of radically unequal power.
A world view which is solely the production of (or is presented as being solely the production of) privileged male writers has its definite limits as the record of a class or social group and its everyday concerns. In attempting to analyze a movement on the basis of canonical documents, we run the risk of overlooking, or actively reinforcing, the social constraints which enable some and not others to emerge as intellectually representative.
The issue of sexuality seems a pretty clear index of this danger in Löwy's account of the intellectual development of liberationist Christianity. Indeed, the central challenge for anyone, including Michael Löwy, interested in developing the relationship between social class and world view would seem to me to be the complex difficulties presented by the compulsive dialectic among gender, sexuality, race and nation in mediating that relationship.
These concerns play an increasingly real, if still subordinate, role in Löwy's work, which in this sense is a convenient mirror of the current state of radical scholarship itself. All of us are still in need of a kind of unified field theory with which to analyze and synthesize the diverse forms of oppression and exploitation in the 1990s.
ATC 80, May-June 1999