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International Socialist Review, January-February 1970


Theodore Edwards & Rev. Blase Bonpane

Marxism and Christianity: Are They Compatible?

A Debate


From International Socialist Review, Vol.31 No.1, January-February 1970, pp.1-21.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


The following debate took place at the Los Angeles Militant Labor Forum, June 20, 1969. The first speaker is Theodore Edwards, a longtime commentator on KPFK, the Pacifica Foundation listener-supported radio station, the educational director for the Southern California Socialist Workers Party, translator of What is Economics? by Rosa Luxemburg, and author of The Soviet Union Today. The second speaker, Rev. Blase A. Bonpane, is a Maryknoll Father who served as national director of the Cursillos de Capacitacion Social, an organization that drew international attention because of its success in peasant organization in Guatemala. In mid-December of 1967, Father Bonpane, together with other priests and sisters, was accused of “plotting an armed revolution” and expelled from Guatemala. He is presently a lecturer in Latin American Studies at California State College in Los Angeles.

* * *


Edwards: Marxism is a little.over one hundred years old. Philosophically, it adheres to dialectical materialism. It is materialist in the sense that it believes that existence precedes consciousness and that reality precedes thought. It is dialectical in the sense that it believes that both nature and society are in flux, in evolution. This evolution takes place through the struggle of conflicting forces.

Marx also obtained new insights into the course of human history by holding that economic factors are basic determinants in human society. It is not multiple, independent, parallel and thus indeterminate causal factors that determine social organization, as contemporary bourgeois sciences hold. Man’s economic activity is the basis of human society. In the last instance, the economics of a historical epoch determine its religious, philosophical, political and moral ideas, and not vice versa. Marxism holds this view without denying the influence and interaction of certain super structural factors upon the course of history, such as ideology, morals, art, religion and culture.

It also holds that changes in productive methods demand super-structural changes, that the institutions and property relations, the moral codes and the ideology have to be transformed, as the productive methods and technology are revolutionized. If they do not change, and they never do when a privileged class is interested in holding fast to them in order to safeguard its privileges, then social revolution is on the order of the day if a revolutionary class is present. If not, then the whole society enters a process of decline.

Lastly, Marxism is a science of economics. Through a detailed study of capitalist society, Marx was the first to show its inevitable decline as a system of production. He also demonstrated the presence of a revolutionary class, the industrial working class, that would institute a world socialist society by revolutionary means, by victory over the resistance of the capitalists.

Christianity, on the other hand, is almost two thousand years old. If Marxism is right and there are no eternal, unchanging moral precepts that are handed down by a supernatural lawgiver to keep evil humanity on the righteous path, then Christianity as an organization and as an ethical structure must have changed over its two-thousand-year history to conform with changing economic conditions.

The evolution of Catholicism

And indeed it has. Its origin is found in the decline of the Roman empire, a slow decomposition that lasted for centuries. There had been struggles by exploited classes within the Roman empire, by slaves and small farmers, in the two centuries before our era. They were defeated by the stubborn resistance of the patrician slaveholders. Roman society entered into a period of decline. The Roman peasantry was ruined, especially by the unending wars that provided slaves for the slaveholders. In the end, it degenerated into the unproductive and impoverished city proletariat of Rome. As the vitality of Roman society was sapped, the wars that procured the slaves diminished, the number of slaves diminished, the price of slaves went up, production declined, the population declined, and the Roman proletariat as an unproductive class had no hope of changing society by revolutionary means.

The early Christian communities reflected this sentiment. It is so close to the sentiment that we’re familiar with that I can’t help referring to it, namely the hippie-type, self-help, anti-poverty cooperatives, the idea of “wanting out” of society, of not being willing to change it, or having been disappointed or disillusioned by not having been able to change it in a revolutionary way. Similarly, in their origin the early Christian communes were self-help anti-poverty cooperatives, composed of the city proletarians of the Roman empire. They were democratic communes at first; communistic in that property was held in common and democratic in that officials were elected. Like the hippies of today, they were persecuted by official Roman society. But they corresponded to an economic need in that society, the necessity for impoverished unproductive city proletarians to have some way of survival in a period of social decomposition.

In time the Christian communities grew and, as they grew, a process of bureaucratization set in, which is by no means just a modern phenomenon. The officials, the bureaucrats, gained in power and their privileges grew. Struggles between the laity and the clergy arose at the same time as inter-empire connections were made between the Christian communities. The first such synod, or congress of Church officials didn’t take place till 200 AD The first all-empire synod didn’t take place until 325 AD. In 320, Constantine, one of the contenders for the throne of the Roman emperor, decided that the Christian communities made good allies in helping him capture that throne.

The Christian communities that had established all-empire connections thus became the state church, supporting the establishment, so to speak. Church contributions became compulsory and Church wealth rose. It was at this point that the communism of consumption that had been established by the non-productive city proletarians, all but vanished as it had been diminished already by the bureaucratization of the Christian communities. The communal meals, the main constituent of the primitive communism of the early Christians, were abolished. The institution survives today only symbolically in the Mass, which is only a token and highly restricted meal.

The messianic, self-help type of commune, having become the state and saddled with a bureaucracy, began to safeguard the rule of the slaveholders in the Roman empire. The Christian Church supported the institution of slavery. Christianity until very recent times has been pro-slavery – as we know from the history of our Southern states only too well. Christianity became one of the principles by which slavery was upheld.

The Roman city proletariat was not interested in abolishing slavery; as a matter of historical fact, it was when slavery began to decline as a mode of production that Christianity rose and not vice versa. At least, that’s the way it was in the Roman empire. Church wealth continued to grow over the centuries; the bureaucratization continued apace. Originally, in order to join the Christian community the new members donated their wealth and property to it, which was then shared in consumption. As bureaucratization proceeded, by 500 AD the Church property was divided as follows: one quarter went to the bishop; one quarter to the building fund; one quarter to the clergy; and only one quarter was left for the “poor,” that is, the rank-and-file Christians. Thus, by the sixth century, the clergy had appropriated three quarters of what originally had belonged to all the Christians!

But even Christianity couldn’t save the Roman empire. It eventually was conquered by Germanic tribes who were still in a stage of agrarian communism. They owned the fields, meadows, the forests and water sources in common, and their communistic relations brought new vigor to the productive process. Productivity rose, poverty sank, the new feudal mode of production asserted itself. Christianity now was not as widely needed anymore as a welfare institution as it had been in the decline of the Roman empire.

But Christianity in feudal times managed to preserve its institutions; it continued to be the state church, a position which became the prune source of its wealth. It became the biggest landowner of the Middle Ages, generally owning one third to one quarter, or more, of the land.

Charlemagne – at the height of feudalism – wanted to continue the tradition of reserving one quarter of church property as the patrimonium pauperum, that is, as belonging to the rank-and-file church members, i.e., the poor. But not long after Charlemagne’s death, one of the bigger steals in recorded history took place. The clergy pretended to be the paupers, by taking an oath of poverty and quickly appropriating the rest of the church property.

In the twelfth century, the Pope, who by that time had established himself as the richest and most powerful of the bishops, began to administer all of the Church wealth in the manner of the former Roman emperors. The fiction arose that it all belonged to the Pope. This in turn led the Pope to fight to force celibacy upon all the clergy so that the princes of the church might not be tempted to distribute the landed property of the church to their progeny. Indeed, the Popes did succeed in forcing celibacy upon the clergy so that the Church would remain the largest feudal landowner. Today, the only reason that I can think of that the Papacy continues to decree the celibacy of priests is that unmarried priests are cheaper, and need less wages and can live in common, whereas somebody who’s married has to have higher wages.

At the same time the Pope, who had become the supreme ruler of feudal Europe, organized the defense of Western Christendom against the incursions of foreign invaders such as the Normans, the Magyars, the Arabs, Avars and so forth. At a certain point in the Crusades, the Papacy went over to the offensive. In so doing, the door was opened to outside influences, to a tremendous upswing in international trade, and to the penetration of the natural economy of feudalism by the money economy. All of this eventually destroyed feudal society and brought capitalism into being.

Decline of the Catholic Church

Up to this point in history, Christianity and the Catholic Church could be conceived as playing a progressive economic function, starting from the decline of the Roman empire till the time of the Crusades at the height of feudal times. However, since then, at least in its Catholic version, it has played a reactionary role.

All its ideals hark back to the Middle Ages, to the tenth to thirteenth centuries. Thomas Aquinas, whom the Church considers the greatest thinker of mankind, lived back in those times. The structure ethically and morally, as well as internally and politically, of the Catholic Church is that of a medieval institution. Everything comes from the top down, and nothing much goes from the bottom up. Obedience, discipline, unquestioning faith, rule “by the grace of God,” autocratic dictation, even in private matters such as birth control, marriage, divorce, birth, the treatment of disease, education and the meddling in science and in politics, all bear the mark of medieval times when theology i.e., the Papacy, dominated everything.

Basically, the Roman Catholic Church continues to show to this day that it operates with medieval concepts. In those days, at the heyday of its power and its influence the Popes and the princes of the Church were no better and no worse than the rest of the feudal nobility. Celibacy, chastity and poverty were just for the rank-and-file priests, not for them. To this day, the Pope and the high princes of the Church dream of the “greaf days when they could burn anyone who disagreed with them at the stake, roasting them very slowly over a slow flame.

But like everything else in society, feudalism also declined. Trade with the East opened up the frozen structure of feudalism; production for exchange began to displace production for use and the new capitalist mode of production began to make inroads. As the economic factors changed, the institutions had to be changed in order for the new productive forces to be allowed to expand. The biggest obstacle along that road was the Papacy, this feudal exploitative machine and international ruler of feudal times that safeguarded feudal institutions and property relations.

Reflecting the new capitalist productive mode, the Protestant sects arose. They fought against the internationalism of the Pope, because capitalism had to build on a national basis. They fought against the conspicuous consumption of the Catholic Church, the number of feast days, the nature of its wealth, in land and in treasures, that had to be broken up and utilized by nascent capitalist production.

The Protestants also democratized the Church. Their sects brought it more or less under the control of the rank-and-file people. In other words, they applied bourgeois-democratic ideals to the ossified feudal structure of Catholicism. They tried to separate state and church. They made religion a question of conscience rather than coercion, at least in their better moments.

The first class struggles between the incoming capitalist class and the antifeudal layers and the feudal classes were fought in religious guise, with varying degrees of success from country to country through Lutheranism and Calvinism, and other varieties of Protestantism.

Henceforward, class struggles were going to be fought out in political terms and not disguised anymore in religious terms. Consequently, not just Christianity but all religious belief has become a detriment to historical progress.

If early Christianity ameliorated the misery of the impoverished city proletariat in the decline of the Roman empire, and Protestantism was the disguised ideology of the bourgeoisie in the rise of capitalism, what of Ecumenism today? I believe that the drive for unity between Protestantism and Catholicism is also motivated by economic as well as political factors. Revolution threatens the capitalist system as a whole everywhere in the world. Capital now operates not just on a national but on an international scale just as the Papacy does. All the reactionary forces feel the need to ally themselves against the forces of revolution. It is this reactionary feeling that motivates Protestantism and Catholicism and Judaism to drop their former disputes at the common altar of reaction.

Materialist base of religion

Since the great French bourgeois revolution, class struggles have been fought on open, nonreligious terms. In late 1793 at the height of the French revolution, the Hebertists, a faction of the Jacobins, abolished all the churches in France, converting them into public assembly halls, designating them as temples of reason. They also opened up the relics and found most of them to be fakes. The Archbishop of Paris appeared before the Convention and admitted that he had taught something that he himself had not believed in.

The Hebertists also decreed that there was no God, that trees of liberty should be planted and that the cult of human reason should be established. They wrote a new calendar, doing away with the traditional nomenclature, renaming the days of the week and the months of the year. In other words, they proceeded to uproot all vestiges of religion.

The Marxist analysis of religion as a social phenomenon states that it has a materialist base, as well as fulfilling a psychological need that arises therefrom. A seeming powerlessness before social and natural forces, the anxiety of being helpless before incomprehensible forces, lead to the supernatural bond of the human psyche.

The attempt of the French revolutionaries of 1793 to establish atheism by decree proved fruitless. Class society was still on the order of the day. Bourgeois class society needed religion once more so that the exploited classes would not be deprived of the balm of a better life after death.

One can quote no better witness than Napoleon Bonaparte because he was instrumental in this process. Napoleon Bonaparte was an ex-radical, as we’d call him today, an ex-Jacobin. Napoleon was quite frank about his own religious beliefs:

“One must reestablish religion in order to have morality. How can one have order in the state without religion? Society [and he means bourgeois society – T.E.] cannot exist without inequality of fortunes and inequalities of fortunes cannot exist without religion. How can a man dying from hunger sit next to a man who is belching from overeating, unless there is an authority that says ‘God wills it so.’”

Napoleon continues:

“It is necessary that there be rich and poor in this world. We need religion to say that in eternity it will be different. I see in religion not the mystery of the incarnation but the mystery of the social order. It relegates to the heavens the idea of inequality so that the rich are not massacred here on earth.”

Accused of being a Papist, Bonaparte said: “I am nothing. I was a Mohammedan in Egypt, I shall be a Catholic here in France, and were I to rule a nation of Jews, I would rebuild Solomon’s temple.” Napoleon signed a concordat with Pope Pius VII to re-establish the Catholic Church in France to protect the bourgeois order. Thus, religion was brought back to France. Because to reconcile the poor with the glaring inequalities of capitalist society, as Bonaparte put it so bluntly and, I think, correctly, they needed the salve of a better life after death.

Today, the Catholic Church and the various Protestant sects continue as instruments of bourgeois class rule on the very basis that Napoleon indicated.

Precisely because Marxists do understand that religion still has a materialist base under capitalism, and even for a time after the socialist revolution, we are against any type of anti-religious as well as religious coercion. We stand for the unconditional freedom of conscience of the individual, even while we oppose the counter-revolutionary machinations of any religious institutions.

The base for religion will disappear as the socialist transformation of the world will bring the at-present-uncontrolled social and natural forces under the conscious control of the human collective.

In the meantime, in the struggles for a new society, in the class struggles that take place, they are neither furthered nor actually fought under the banner of so-called eternal moral precepts. They are fought for economic and political goals that should be bluntly and clearly stated.

The struggle to salve one’s own conscience, the desire for individual martyrdom is ineffective because it negates the demands of the class struggle. The appeals to the conscience of the ruling class are fruitless, as the assassinated Martin Luther King and the nonviolent movement that he led found out. In class society, moral precepts and general moral prescriptions safeguard only inequality, lack of liberty and exploitation. All of this, in the name of liberty, freedom and equality!

These supposedly eternal ideas, these moral precepts, have different meanings to different classes at different times and at different periods. To the early Christians, equality meant equality of consumption and to consume collectively. That was their main ritual of which precious little remains in the Mass, nothing at all, as a matter of fact. To the early Christians, freedom meant freedom from work.

As unproductive proletarians, they never were interested in work. As a matter of fact the ascetics and other early sects were completely indolent, and it was considered a great virtue not to do anything.

But to the capitalists, equality meant something else. It meant the institution of private property rights in the means of production. Not only the feudal landowners and barons should rule the society, but the bourgeoisie too should have a say. The capitalists too should get a large share in the wealth, and for that purpose they should be allowed to exploit people. That was what equality meant to the capitalists.

Freedom to them meant the liberty to use the means of production for their own private profit; that’s why they call the capitalist world the “free” world – because they are free to exploit all the wealth of humanity for their own private profit.

To Marxists, equality and freedom mean something quite different. To the revolutionary industrial proletariat, what does equality mean? First, it means the ability of all to utilize the socially produced labor product. And freedom has a different content also. It signifies the diminution of the socially necessary labor time to a minimum by planning an economy for the benefit of everyone, by removing the impediment of the private appropriation of labor’s product.

The liberty for the enjoyment of life, the sciences, the arts, will be increased not through the total elimination of all necessary work, as the early Christians thought, but by reducing it to a minimum and by sharing that necessary work equally among all the members of society.

Marxists pose their aims not in religious or general ethical principles but in scientific and political terms: the nationalization of the means of production, the establishment of a planned economy, and the extension of the socialist revolution, its benefits and its power, to the rest of the world.

It will be the revolutionary endeavors of the working masses that will make the forces of humanity obey the collective will and decision of society. In this manner, the need for religion and any other kind of nonscientific beliefs and practices will be overcome.


Father Bonpane: I’m glad to be with you this evening. I think we’ve heard a marvelous analysis of where we’ve been, and I’ll try to give a few thoughts on where we’re going. Certain things are happening today that I think we want to keep abreast of. All of us would be repelled by any kind of religious coercion, whether it be dogmatic atheism, or evangelical atheism, or evangelical Christianity, or Mohammedanism. We as human beings reject this very strongly. So, as Christianity becomes aware of itself, slowly, we see the same awareness that all mankind is going through, something starts to happen. It’s happened in a prison cell, in Germany, at the time of Adolph Hitler, when Dietrich Bonhoeffer concluded that it would be a wise thing to participate in the assassination attempt against the dictator, as a Lutheran minister.

I’m happy tonight that we’re here to discuss Marxism and Christianity rather than simply Marxism and Catholicism. Bonhoeffer, in reflecting in a very prophetic way where Christianity was going, said in his book Letters and Papers from Prison, “We’re going on, to a religionless Christianity.” It was a profound thought on his part because he felt very definitely that it was precisely the religion in Christianity that was the negative factor and, to him, the use of the word “religion” in this context meant ritualism: the association of salvation with ritual; the association of salvation with formalism or legalism, or what we might call triumphalism.

Formalism, thinking that through certain forms or being stiff in front of God that somehow we gave him homage. Legalism, that we’d have to have laws to be saved, whether it be laws of compulsory attendance at church, laws of celibacy, or any other ecclesiastical, human, civil laws that have made up so much of ecclesiastical practice in canon law through the years. And triumphalism, a concept that we do have the best possible church, and the best possible representatives and we do the best possible thing at all times.

Bonhoeffer conceded that those things were very negative factors in Christianity and he saw them as going out. He said a “religion-less Christianity” which, in his vision, prior to his assassination, meant that the building of churches would not be important in the future, that somehow what was happening was that man was becoming more incarnational. And rather than think of incarnational as having man focus on pie in the sky by and by, the concept of incarnation in Bonhoeffer’s terms was precisely that man enter into the hopes, desires, anxieties and sufferings of his brother, up to and including the ultimate consequences, which for him he would equate with the crucifixion.

So he could see this incarnational view of man which he found in no way contradictory or obstructionist to the revolutionary currents of his day. Now this has been going on in Christianity not only with Bonhoeffer, but with many others, even into the sacred confines of the Vatican itself.

The Vatican has said things which it has not carried out to this date. Whether we start with the writings of Leo XIII, which were clearly an answer to the writings of Karl Marx – clearly and distinctly – his letter Rerum Novarum written toward the end of the nineteenth century was a direct answer to the Communist Manifesto. Was it an answer? He simply began by mentioning that men were going into factories and being destroyed, while material is coming out of factories ennobled.

Something, a certain awareness was coming into these Church people, in spite of the fact that they continued to live as Oriental monarchs. Continuing with Pius XI and Quadrogesimo Anno, a reiteration of the rights of the working man in front of his oppressors. All of this, I would say, still within the context of class structure, still within the context of private property, very definitely, very obviously. So that private property as a right was reiterated by both of these men, in the strongest possible terms. And it wasn’t until that very dangerous character came along, John XXIII, that we began to see observations that, well really, private property cannot be seen as an absolute right, it’s a rather relative thing, a certain weakening in the formal former capitalist line, that had been very strongly held by the previous Popes.

John XXIII scandalized the capitalist world with Mater et Magistra in which he spoke of the socialization process as an irreversible process of the twentieth century, and perhaps the most notable process of the twentieth century, and something that was not about to change. He acknowledged it. People like the columnist William Buckley at that time said “Mater si, Magistra no.” (Mother yes, teacher no.) He as a Catholic, right-wing teacher, objected very strongly to what was coming out of the mouth of this old man in Rome. That was followed by Pacem in Terris, which was looked upon by many as an attempt to make a rapport with the Marxist world. John was called by all, “soft on Communism,” to say nothing of “soft on socialism.”

Oddly enough, the present man has become a tragic figure in terms of ecclesiastical law. In terms of economics and politics, he is not quite so tragic. If we analyze his letter, for example, Populorum Progressio, and see his understanding of the place of revolution in society, we can see that Pope Paul himself acknowledges the possibility of total restructurization of society, where he says – something that is so often quoted by Latin American rebels – in his letter written in 1966, “violent revolutions generally and frequently beget new evils, and we should try to avoid this type of activity – except in the case of long standing tyrannies where the fundamental rights of man have been violated.”

Catholicism and revolution

Regis Debray, in Bolivia, quoted this immediately, saying this is where we’re at in Latin America. I can recall very well the man second in command of the FAR [Fuerzas Armadas Rebeldes, Rebel Armed Forces] in Guatemala having in his back pocket a copy of this encyclical, and saying, “we have a mandate from the Pope himself, because we have longstanding tyranny, and we’ve had this tyranny for many years.”

So I think the only position we can take in front of Christianity, is to defend nothing. I think the analysis we’ve heard is very striking, and any observations I might make in regard to it would perhaps be nitpicking. I think the analysis as given stands very, very well.

For example, in nitpicking I could stress the fact of Paul’s labors as a tentmaker and so on. However, we notice Paul had to tell the people to go back to work because they weren’t working, they were expecting the Lord to return and he had a difficult time with them, and he said, well, go to work folks. There was a waiting that was very definitely there, and it certainly was noticeable in monasticism, which in time did show a great deal of industry, certainly industry in terms of bookmaking, printing and study, etc. However there was a rise of what we call contemplation, which at best is reflection and which at worst is laziness. So I would say, to attack the analysis we have heard would be nitpicking and I would rather let it stand. I would much rather let it stand and try to say where this thing called Christianity is going, because it, as all mankind, is growing.

I see history, not as a repetitious cyclic thing, but rather as a spiral going upwards, and mankind is to blame, when we think of world revolution. I sat there the other day in front of the Federal Building in Los Angeles noticing people looking for Communists and I was saying to myself, my God, if every Communist alive today in the world were dead, we would still be in the midst of international revolution. Things are happening regardless. Mankind is on the move, regardless of the ideologies that surround it. Nothing is going to stop mankind from changing. This structure and restructurization of society is going on, and it’s continuing, so let’s try to grab it where it is.

We have people like Teilhard de Chardin who came along and who was not a Marxist. And we found his writings in Spanish, and they started filtering around in Latin America, and the Latin American Marxists were just fascinated with him. Where did this Marxist come from – Chardin? What was it that drew the Latin American Marxist so much to Teilhard? It was the dynamics of Teilhard, of seeing the struggle, the constant struggle in mankind. This fascinated the Latin American who is steeped in a Christian culture, a culture that is coming out of his ears, that has been associated particularly with Roman Catholicism.

Then we had a fascinating occurrence in this century – the second Vatican Council. I don’t think we really appreciate as yet all that has come as a result of this council. Not so much in action but in words. First of all, by having a reverence for the unbeliever. There was a lack of reverence in the Church prior to this, a lack of reverence for the unbeliever. That’s where the Church was. They would long to, and I have often felt as we have just heard, that the old-line group in the Church would enjoy returning to the days of the Inquisition, really would enjoy it. But with the coming of the Vatican council came a new reverence, and with this reverence comes a way of saying, here is a man who does not believe. I appreciate him.

But from this many things follow. From this we appreciate not only other religions, but lack of religion, and from this reverence we’re ready to say something, namely, “We don’t know all there is to know. We don’t always know about God. We don’t always know about all these dogmas.” We used to have the arrogant attitude, “Come to me and I will tell you all about God.” Today, there is much less arrogance.

There are some people who wish to stand before a mystery. There are people who wish to say, “There are things in life which I do not understand.” There are many who still use the word God. I remember sitting at the feet for hours of the Marxist Eric Fromm in Cuernavaca, Mexico, listening and sharing with him on these points, and saying, “Look Eric, people generally refer to you as an atheist. Would you explain atheism to us as we sit here, and relate it to your Marxism?”

And he said, “I’ll explain my atheism, but only as a Jew. I explain my atheism by saying that the name of God is a name we don’t say. The old Rabbis, they wouldn’t focus on the word because they were too incarnate with their own body and with life here, and they thought that’s the way it should be. And that’s the way I, Eric Fromm, look at it, and people call me an atheist.” I thought that perhaps this was one of the best expressions of faith I ever heard.

We flippant Christians throw the word God around very easily, as if we could comprehend God. We cannot. So perhaps we can just acknowledge a certain amount of mystery in life. I find today that man is the best focal point for all of this. I find in fact that basically I am a pragmatist, nothing else, I can’t be anything else.

I am constantly trying to observe things at work, the things that bring results, and I find that in the Latin American scene – an area that is beset by revolution – the atheistic humanist and the theistic humanist can work together, and they don’t have time for any problems. They are together in all the rebel movements in Latin America at this moment. I’ve heard young rebels say, “I’m in this because I believe.” I’ve heard other rebels say, “I don’t even believe my mother.” Whether they believe or not is in a certain sense irrelevant. The important thing is that they can identify with the struggle of mankind – they’re not going to waste time on the dogmatics of trying to create an evangelical atheist or an evangelical Christian.

I notice this in the revolutionary country of Cuba, which perhaps gives an example to us of the Church problem – there’s never been a revolutionary country in history more considerate of the established church than Cuba. Far more considerate than the early days of the Mexican revolution, which was rather tough on the established church; the Cuban revolution has been very, very mild.

At the present time the Cubans cannot see their way clear to allowing a practicing Catholic to be a member of the Party. While I was there I talked to many people about this, and thought about it. I wrote a couple of articles on the subject in Havana for their Pensamiento Critico, their critical magazine, thinking that the burden of this change is really on the Church structures, not on the Cuban government.

The Church structures are still rather inhibiting to someone who’s involved in revolutionary politics and hence, in my view, as the Church can become less formalistic, the Catholic Church now, less legalistic, less triumphalistic; it will be possible for a revolutionary government not to have to make distinctions between those who are formal believers and those who are not. The fact is that in the past, the Church has been a refuge for counterrevolutionaries, and in certain places for example, even in Cuba today, it is that still. We can’t make generalities on this, but we can say that for certain people it is a refuge of counterrevolution.

Where is it going? I think that the Church is going to become less and less visible and more and more Christian. It will go, I think, where Harvey Cox sees it going, will find its way into secular institutions, people having a reverence for this man Jesus, who far from being otherworldly, was a man who told us to do the will of God on earth. What we did to him was not to crucify him once, but practically to crucify him every time we set up a new church.

So, I do think the concepts are viable. Because I don’t see them staying the same, I don’t look back to Marxism any more than I look back to Jesus. I see them both as going forward, and both in a process of constant change. I could be called personally an eclectic, a person who does pick and choose from people who have gone before.

Are the two concepts compatible? I’d say that dogmatic Marxism is not compatible with dogmatic medieval Catholicism. I think that’s quite clear. I’d say that nondogmatic Marxism is very compatible with revolutionary Christianity, because revolutionary Christianity is not more associated to capitalism than it is to Jesus.

I think that many of our Christians, say in places like the United States, are far more capitalistic than they are Christian. There’s much more of a tie to capitalism than there is to Christianity. Hence for them, I think there would be a distinction.

However, as time goes on, I see more of a rapport between Marxism and Christianity than there ever could be between capitalism and Christianity. There’s moce room for rapport. It’s more possible to be able to say that we will share with all according to their means and we will take from each according to his ability. It is more possible for us to say that no one had anything that they called their own, but that they shared things in common. These things are very scriptural, taken from the Acts of the Apostles. It is more possible to identify that with Marxist concepts than it would be to identify it with the concept of profit, especially profit as applied to a few. In answer to the question posed this evening, I would say yes, Christianity and Marxism are compatible.

Where is the Church going then? Mention was made of the celibate clergy. Many of us are working quite strongly against that at the present time. We’re doing everything we can to change it because we do feel that that is one of the factors that has helped to maintain thought control, to say nothing of birth control, and to maintain economic control over the clergy. There’s a very definite move against that.

Pressure for change

The move within the churches at the present time is coming from the bottom up, and that is very significant. People are voting for married clergy by getting married – that’s their vote. And I don’t know of any other way to do it. That’s quite revolutionary in its own way, but that’s what revolution is about, a small group of people doing something. There is only a handful of us here that are doing something. This is going on everywhere in the Church.

There are a lot of people who no longer identify with fear in the Church. They cannot base their spiritual growth on fear any longer. They say, “if you don’t go to Mass on Sunday you’ll go to hell.” Their answer is, “you go to hell.” Fear is not the factor at this point. It will not be. This has been the controlling factor, as it has been in many folk cultures, so in order to understand what is happening to the Church, perhaps we’d better look, rather than to politics, instead to anthropology. The Church, and Church people are leaving their folkways.

Folk cultures, as you know, are marked by a specific garb. We all dress the same way. What a connection there was between those folk communities in Guatemala and religious orders! I used to see Indians all dressed exactly the same way, from a given village. Not to dress the way everyone else dressed was an insult to the community worthy of excommunication. The Church, then, is changing its garb. Folk cultures all speak the same language. The Church is changing its language. Folk cultures operate on antiquarianism. The oldest must be the wisest. We are seeing a change in that.

What is happening then is that structures related to Christianity are leaving folk patterns and entering into urban society. And as they enter into urban society they are accepting the thoughts of urban society, one of which is Marxism. So our question has been whether these are compatible. I would say they certainly are compatible. Is present day Marxism compatible with medieval Christianity? No. Is revolutionary Christianity compatible with what is happening in revolutionary Marxism? Yes.

We have so many examples in Latin America – like the words of Fidel recently when he said, the Communist parties of Latin America are becoming more and more reactionary while the churches are becoming more and more revolutionary. There’s the example of the State Department of the United States telling Professor Donald Bray in Washington that at this point we’re less worried about the power of some of the established parties than we are about the power of the mobilized Church. I heard the same idea while I was in Washington.

Why do you think the primary aide of Archbishop Dom Helder Camara was just found stabbed and beaten to death, because of his tremendous impact on the students of the University of Recife? The rightwing extremists knew that this man as a priest, as assistant to the Archbishop, was having a greater revolutionary impact on the students than their party line was. Why? Because he was telling them yes to revolution. Just as the Archbishop himself has. They’re afraid to kill him at this point.

We probably have twenty revolutionary archbishops in Latin America. We have none in the United States. Don’t get worried. We don’t have any, not even one. We have very unusual people in the episcopacy in Latin America: some twenty – a small minority out of hundreds of bishops. Most of them are in the reactionary mold of time gone by. Some of them are already using Marxist terminology in their pastoral letters.

This began with a very striking one called The Letter of the Bishops of the Third World. This started off by saying, “For centuries now, the Church has tolerated capitalism in its lending of money at interest, with its exploitation, and with its class system. And we cannot help but rejoice in seeing new systems, more just and more equitable.” These are a handful of the only turned-on church leaders in Latin America. Fifteen to twenty bishops who realize that if things change the way they should be changing they are going to lose their homes and their Mercedes-Benz.

Then as we go to the lower clergy there are thousands, thousands of such priests in Latin America at the present time. The really dangerous ones (for all the agents present here) are the native-born Latin Americans. We North Americans are generally conservatives at the present time, because we’re attached to apple pie. The Latin Americans haven’t had much apple pie as clergy and they couldn’t give a damn whether their country is “Communist” or “Socialist” tomorrow or not. They are interested in whether their people eat.

And when I say they couldn’t give a damn, by that I mean they are not going to oppose it at all. They are not, and are not going to be, counter-revolutionary. We sat down, and I remember very well, with a group of rebels who would come in from the countryside for a little chat and some rest at a nice quiet church in Guatemala City.

And they don’t have two heads. They don’t have two lines. They have one line. They say what they think and they said, “We’re going to be very hard on the Catholic Church.” The priests sitting around said, “Gee, that’s great.” They said, “We have no objections to Christianity, but we’re going to be very hard on the concept of buildings, on the concept of class, on the concept of privileges.” The priests listening to this were all safe in terms of revolutionary change, all, every one of them were safe. They had nothing to say except “sock it to them.” So the churchmen of Latin America – I can’t say all, I wish I could – are not going to be an inhibiting factor.

I guess maybe I’ve taken a step away from the ideology and tried to go to the reality a little more. I think you’re conscious of what’s been happening in Russia recently. They’re certainly very interested in churches from the standpoint of history and culture, and there’s been a lot more reflection in the Science of Religion magazine on the place of religion in culture. There has been more of this in the past year in Russia, I think, than we’ve seen since 1917. I don’t think we necessarily have to consider this revisionist. I think it is simply trying to analyze a reality that man will deal with. If we hindered an analysis of some sort of Christian or Jewish or Moslem or Zen thought, I think we’d have little underground groups forming in China, having a secret discussion on religion.

That religion has been the opiate of the people, I would never deny. It has been. It can be the opiate. I don’t think it has to be the opiate. It has consistently been an opiate, for telling people be patient and God will bless you in heaven. That is precisely what the revolutionary church does not tell people today. And that is precisely why they’re screwing up the whole thing – as far as maintaining the status quo is concerned.

It has an occupational hazard historically. It has with it historically redeeming factors of study, redeeming factors of social welfare, redeeming factors of printing, redeeming factors of culture, redeeming factors of getting man to contemplate spiritual reality, redeeming factors of helping man see that he is not a machine. There is a mystique about man – that he is something greater than the sum of his parts, that there are things that we do not understand, that there are things that we cannot put into a box, that there are realities in life that we cannot control.

“As philosophies, they are incompatible”

Edwards: Marxism believes in the primacy of economic factors in conditioning all superstructural phenomena, especially in the ideological field. I think that the ferment that today shakes even the most frozen structures of religious practice is testimony to that interrelation. The worldwide crisis that contemporary capitalist society is in and the revolutionary endeavors of millions of exploited masses have affected even the most traditional and hidebound institutions. I would certainly put the Catholic Church, the Vatican and the Pope in that latter category. An establishment that can hang on for seven hundred years after it has outlived itself – that is really quite a feat! It has continued to exist through seven hundred years of the incoming, fullblown and now decadent bourgeois society, without ever reforming itself or giving up any of its medieval ideas. If someone here or there pays lip service now and then to more modern ideas, I don’t think that means too much.

If we’re going to make a list of what the Popes have said, I think we should also mention the rejection of birth control by the Pope. Of all the reactionary positions ever taken by the Church here is one that is even rejected by most of the firm believers, who hold that this is a private matter, not subject to dictation by any authority, especially not a bachelor autocrat.

I indicated the materialist base for religion and that we Marxists believe that it is dwindling. In general, scientific concepts are being introduced into all conditions of life. You can’t even buy food anymore without knowing something of the composition of what you buy in scientific terms. And if even you know that, you don’t know that tomorrow it might not be declared harmful, contaminated by DDT, or what not. Scientific knowledge is needed today just for the plain, ordinary business of survival in this modern society with its growing complexity.

You have to have some knowledge of the natural sciences and increasingly the social sciences as well. Previously, perhaps partial awareness was enough in social struggles. But I don’t think that it’s going to be enough in the present and in the near future. The division of labor in the production of goods has increased to the point where it is imperative to become acquainted with scientific insights to achieve complete consciousness and awareness and particularly to reject any notion that there are some things that you cannot know. That all things are open to the human mind, given time and the will and the application to solve all problems, this is widely understood today. The hypothesis of a divinity lurking behind that which you do not understand right now, has begun to wither away.

Those oppressed sectors of society or those layers that are amenable to their pressure, will try hanging on to religion, even after having become infected with revolutionary ideology, and try to reconcile the two. But in order to do this, it is necessary first of all to look at the gospels not as divinely inspired but as historical documents written long after the events described, and falsified over the centuries in the interests of the Church bureaucracy.

One possible hypothesis is that Jesus was a Galilean guerrilla fighter who tried to make an insurrection in Jerusalem, and was defeated and crucified by the Romans. The Jews in Judea at that time were a conquered people oppressed by the Romans and generally were engaged in a struggle of national liberation against Roman conquest until the final fall of Jerusalem in 70 AD. This concept of Jesus as a revolutionary liberation fighter is certainly within the realm of historical probability.

However, the Christian communities that spread throughout the Roman empire after the fall of Jerusalem didn’t want to offend the Romans. They put the onus of the crucifixion on the Jews, perpetrating one of the worst falsifications and no doubt the longest lasting slander in history. What reason would the Jewish people have for demanding (unanimously, say the gospels!) that their oppressors, the Romans, kill one of their own fighters for liberation? Since when, in a revolutionary period, does such a thing happen? Bits here and there in the gospels still show the historical falsification: The Romans scourged and put the crown of thorns on Jesus, and reviled him, etc.

If you really wanted to go to a revolutionary Christianity, you’d have to revise the gospels, treat them as historical documents and resurrect the historical Jesus. This is very hard if not impossible to do, because the record has been expunged and falsified for two millennia.

There is a certain similarity between the primitive communism of consumption of the early Christians and the communism of the Marxists. Both have the sense of equality and of sharing things, but modern communism is one of production, of freeing the productive wealth of society from the fetters of the private profit motive. Modern institutional Christianity has lost even the primitive communism of early Christianity.

I also find it difficult to reconcile the role that organized Christianity plays in the present worldwide struggles with the conception of a revolutionary Christianity. Even in the time of the Reformation and in the Middle Ages, in order to make the church into a revolutionary instrument, the Protestant sects had to break with the Pope and with all organized religion, forming new denominations.

There was no working within the confines of the established hierarchy, as Luther, Calvin and others found out. It might very well be that such new religious sects are in the making, but I think it would be an illusion for members of those particular persuasions to believe that they can reform either the Catholic Church or any one of the established Protestant institutions.

My answer to the question of whether Marxism and Christianity are compatible is that as philosophies they are not compatible. I think that religion is on the way out and science is on the way in, and I consider Marxism as the science of society.

In the ongoing process of struggle for the achievement of socialism, revolutionary Marxists and revolutionary Christians are certainly compatible as long as they’re fighting for the same things. I think that the contradiction there lies not in the revolutionary Marxists but in the revolutionary Christians who vainly seek to reconcile their old religious beliefs with their new-found revolutionary ideology. I think they will find eventually that the time of Reformation, the time of heretical sects, the time of trying to reform the church ended long ago. The subsequent course of struggle will demonstrate that, if it isn’t clear now.

As for Latin America, I have a slightly different appreciation of the influence of Catholicism in Latin America. In Latin America the Catholic Church has a long history of oppressing the people. My view of Latin American intellectuals is not that they’re in the sway of Catholicism, but that they pay no attention to it. I would like to point out that the Catholic Church in Latin America can’t even raise enough cadres for its own priesthood from the local people. It has to import North American, Italian and Spanish priests in order to fill up the cadres of the Church, not being able to convince the Latin American intellectuals that the priesthood is the career for them. I would rather think that the Church in Latin America is on the skids. The revolutionary views expressed inside the Church in Latin America are an indication of how far the influence of revolutionary sentiment has spread, affecting even some of the upper hierachy who give lip service to it. But I’m not convinced that they’re really revolutionaries.

The Third Congress of the International Union of the Christian Democratic Youth in Montevideo was quite a shift to the left on the part of the Latin Americans from Bolivia, Argentina, and Chile, who came out for building a class organization of the workers and for the socialist revolution. But I don’t think that this means that the Catholic Church or the Protestant churches are going to become revolutionary organizations. It signifies that some of the lower ranks of the hierarchy and the rank-and-file Catholics are coming over to the revolution, and will participate to the fullest in the coming socialist uprisings, despite their religious hangups.

A role for revolutionary church figures

Bonpane: I would like to make a few comments on this: First of all, on the birth control thing, July 1967, when the last letter came out, and it was one of the clearest cases again of a grassroots movement of people within the Church saying “no” to a document from Rome. It came up in a very interesting way. The day it came out there was a comment with it, saying we hope that the faithful will understand that this letter is not meant to be an infallible document. The answer of course was, noninfallible indeed! It has been fairly well rejected. The thing that has fascinated me about it is that I feel that the document has a lot in common with the Marxist view of population. In other words, what the United States needs today is a better understanding of what I believe is the Marxist view of population, namely, that the earth is quite productive and with scientific means we can feed the population that we have. In other words, I find very little population paranoia in Marxist areas.

I think this horror of the population explosion is very definitely tied up with US capitalism. We don’t want those dirty brown or black people increasing too fast! So we want those people to limit their families so that they don’t get too big. We never gave a damn about them before. We couldn’t care less whether they live or die. We don’t want them to get so big in Latin America that they outnumber us – so that the whites can rule. I feel that this is something distinct to the States. I’ve seen Latin American Marxist demographers absolutely viciously attack US birth-control programs as just another form of Yankee imperialism. The same as if you go into a black ghetto to preach birth control. The black revolutionary will say, “Man, have babies, have as many babies as you can. We’ll outnumber you.” What the hell do they want to practice birth control for? Go and have babies, lots of revolutionary babies.

I personally am opposed to the Pope’s letter and do not accept it as it stands. I don’t like the letter. As stated before, it doesn’t give enough reverence to the personal decision. I don’t think a decision like that is up to the Pope. It depends on the people how many children they want. A lot depends on the area: Latin America is land rich. Cuba would like to have twenty million people on that little island; there’s no pressure to restrict births. The birth rate is lower than in the rest of Latin America: It’s 2.2 now. Across the Caribbean, it’s about 3.7 a year in Central America. But there are no pressures to limit birth in Cuba. Prior to marriage, anyone can receive birth control information. After marriage they can receive birth control information, and abortions are legal.

On this matter about Jesus and the Zealots – I put it that way because that’s the title of a book by Brannon – I think the book has a very interesting hypothesis in it, and I can only see it as a hypothesis. Brannon’s thesis, as an Englishman, is that Jesus did start off with a raid on the Temple and that raid was not made alone. We can find that in the New Testament. He followed this by riding into Jerusalem to take control of the city, as king. He was caught and crucified for this political act. Crucifixion was only reserved for political acts. Subjecting this to analysis, there could have been an overmystification of the thing, as there has been of what many great people have done. That is open to discussion, and believe me, Catholic theologians will be discussing these hypotheses along with the rest of the world, because they’re very interesting ones.

One comment which I think very good is that those who have taken part in revolutionary activity and were associated with the formal church, were generally on the outside. They were not in good standing with City Hall. Let’s put it that way. And that is consistent with the historical understanding and the role of the prophet.

Leaving Christianity aside, look at this in the Jewish analysis. The typical Jewish prophet stood outside of society, was in bad standing with the Church and particularly stood outside of the city and shouted at society, screamed at it, and told the people about their hypocrisy, their lies, about their fakery, until such time as the people picked up stones and killed him. That is more or less the history of prophets down through the years. The prophet is usually outside of the established political and religious structures, and I think that is still true today. And I think we do see many prophets today, people in a traditional prophetic stance.

This tension between science and religion perhaps will remain. I’m not good at seeing the future. We have our astronauts circling the moon and reading the book of Genesis now, so man has always been tempted to do something pious at a moment of great discovery. That this can be used as a copout I will not deny. I don’t know that it will fade away because of the great complexity of man and his culture, and of what he does not understand. Hence, revolutionary Christians usually are outside the pale.

In the history of Latin America this is clear. Hildago in the Mexican liberation struggle was a priest in very bad standing when he took up his musket, as was Morelos. These men were known as priests and fought as priests. Bartolomeo de las Casas didn’t use arms. Camilo Torres certainly was armed to the teeth. What contribution do these men have to make at this time? I think they have the contribution to make that perhaps sectarian Marxists will not be able to make.

I think, because of the relationship of religious figures to society, whether they’ll exist in the twenty-first century is another question – but in this period of transition, I think that religious figures are going to be people to build the united fronts in the world today. That is precisely what Camilo Torres was doing. And in his talks throughout Colombia he said,

“I’m not here to play games with you about Marxist analysis. I want the Communists and the Socialists and the Christian Democrats, and I want all of us, instead of playing games, fighting each other, to strike upwards at the oligarchy, smash it, and restructure Colombia.”

And the people of Colombia said yes to him, as they could say yes to no other figure since Jorge Gaitan, who was murdered in 1948.

I think this is what is going to happen. Again, I am not saying this is the way it is always going to be. What I’m trying to do is analyze Latin America in terms of where it is. Latin America can identify with church figures, especially with revolutionary church figures, especially with those who have left the structure, or who aren’t afraid of the structure. I think that we had best work together with this, and would recommend to you reading the platform of Camilo Torres for the unity of the Colombian people in revolutionary struggles to change their society.

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Last updated on 25 June 2009