Dialogue: “The War of Gods”: Marxism and Christianity

Against the Current, No. 84, January/February 2000

Michael Löwy and Terry Murphy

TERRY MURPHY’S GENEROUS and insightful review of my book The War of Gods: “Religion and Politics in Latin America” (ATC 80, May-June 1999) raises many interesting critical questions. Let me try to deal at least with some of them.

On the methodological level: I did not claim in my book Paysages de la Verité (1985) that “the attempt to extend the scientific method to the investigation of society is fundamentally flawed,” and I do not propose “a rejection of the scientific method.” That seems to me a very far fetched claim!

My argument is slightly different: I think that the method used in the natural sciences is, in many regards, inadequate for the study of social, cultural or historical facts. I don’t believe in “natural laws” of economy or history, and therefore the natural/scientific method aiming at the discovery of such laws is not appropriate for the human sciences.

Further, the model of scientific objectivity developed in physics or astronomy cannot be applied to the social sciences, whereas Lucien Goldmann argued, subject and object partially overlap, and where opposed social interests inevitably affect the process of knowledge.

Positivism, in my view, is precisely the attempt to introduce the methodological paradigm of natural sciences into the scientific study of historical, cultural or social facts: It is a tendency not only of bourgeois social science but also of many “scientific Marxists,” who seem to ignore the humanistic, historicist and dialectical method of Karl Marx, Rosa Luxemburg and Antonio Gramsci.

As far as religion is concerned: Murphy rightly draws attention to the limited and insufficient discussion, in my book, of issues of gender and sexuality. I accept this criticism, as well as the one concerning my neglect towards the religions of the Caribbean and African Diaspora.

His remark about the Utopian content of Rastafarianism is interesting. I’ve been recently contacted by Luis Fernandes de Oliveira, an Afro-Brazilian Marxist who is doing research on the “elective affinity” between Umbanda, the Afro-Brazilian religious movement, and socialism. Such work would certainly help us to win a broader and more inclusive view of politics and religion in Latin America.

[Editors’ Note: The concept of elective affinity is explained briefly in Terry Murphy’s review (ATC 80), and in detail in Michael Löwy’s work Redemption and Utopia, a study of Jewish radical thinkers in Central Europe.]

However, if I did not deal with the use by U.S. African-Americans of the Bible as a narrative of enslavement and liberation, it is only because my book is limited to Latin America and does not pay any attention to North American developments.

Catholicism, Protestantism, Communism

Murphy also criticizes me for an excessive emphasis on Catholicism. In fact, The War of Gods includes a chapter on Protestantism, both reactionary and progressive. If I pay more attention to Catholicism it is because it is, in Latin America, the dominant popular religion, and moreover, the confession of most liberationist Christians.

As I emphasized, however, quoting Max Weber, Lutheranism is also—-at least potentially—resistant to capitalism. In fact, most of the progressive Protestants in Latin America belong to the “historical” Protestant Churches, as opposed to the new Pentecostal ones.

In my book Georg Lukàcs, From Romanticism to Bolshevism I refer to the role of Protestant intellectuals in the development of anticapitalist currents in Central Europe. But this is not contradictory, as Murphy seems to suggest, with the emphasis, in the Latin American context, on Catholicism.

It would be interesting to study the leftist forms of anticapitalist Protestantism in European culture. It is known, for instance, that several Swiss Protestants figure in the communist or revolutionary socialists ranks.

Jules Humbert-Droz, one of the leaders of the Communist International during the ’20s, was a Swiss Protestant pastor. Did he move away from religion when joining the Communist Party? Other Swiss Protestants, such as Leonhard Ragaz and Fritz Lieb, remained both faithful Christians and Socialists to the end of their lives.

In Germany too, there is a significant current of Protestant Christian socialism, from Paul Tillich and Martin Niemoller to Helmut Gollwitzer, Dorothea Solle and, more recently, Franz Segbers.

More research is needed to find out the specific modes of political radicalization among European Protestant intellectuals, which may be to some extent at least, different from the Catholic ones. But this could hardly be dealt with in a book on Latin America.

Are there differences of perspective between European progressive theologians—Catholic or Protestant—and their Latin American counterparts? It is difficult to generalize, since European radical Christians are far from being of one mind in social and political issues.

I quoted French theologian Christian Duquoc, who counterposes among Catholic progressists the European emphasis on progress with the Latin American one on poverty. But I would certainly not draw from this the general conclusion which Murphy seems to attribute to me, namely that European revolutionary intellectuals formed in the tradition of the ideology of progress “fall short of the perspective of the defeated of history.”

Lenin and Trotsky, Lukacs and Gramsci believed in historical progress, but nevertheless sided with the defeated, the victims of imperialism and fascism.

Murphy asks the question: “If Löwy is right, why haven’t other religions generated such movements?” I’m unable to answer this question, which would require a vast comparative analysis covering Christianity—both Catholic and Protestant—with Judaism, Islam, Buddhism, etc.

There may well be progressive or socialist tendencies among other religions, probably with a very different nature and content. In The War of Gods I limit myself to an attempt to explain, from a Marxist viewpoint (using also some Weberian insights), what happened in Latin America during the last decades. I cannot offer a general and universal theory on religion and politics.

Is Liberation Theology Finished?

Finally, Murphy is skeptical about my opinion that liberation theology has a future. He considers the empirical evidence I give—on Chiapas, etc.—as insufficient, considering “the eclipse in the dominance of Marxism in Latin American intellectual life.”

Well, my argument is mainly directed against the claim that after the fall of the Berlin Wall, liberation theology “died.” The empirical evidence from Mexico, Haiti, Ecuador, Brazil, etc. shows that this is far from being true, and that liberationist Christianity has shown a surprising vitality throughout the `90s.

In fact, unlike the Stalinist currents in Latin America, radical Christians did not build their identity on the Soviet (or Chinese) sad bureaucratic caricature of collectivism, but rather on the need to fight the “really existing” capitalism and its tragic social consequences. This is why they were much less affected than the Communist Parties by the inglorious demise of so-called “really existing socialism.”

As for the future, I end the book with the following cautious comment: “It is difficult, if not impossible, to predict what will be the future of liberationist Christianity in Latin America. (. . .) In any case . . . it has shaped the religious and political culture of several generations of Christian activists in the continent, most of whom are not likely to give up their deeply rooted ethical and social convictions.”

I’m not so sure about the eclipse of Marxism in Latin American intellectual life. That may have been true during the late 1980s and early `90s, but is beginning to change in the last few years.

One of the signs of this change is the upsurge, in various Latin-American countries, of new Marxist journals—in Brazil alone there are six or seven—of various tendencies, usually not linked to a political party, and related to each other through yearly continental meetings.

The great interest around the 150th centennial of the Communist Manifesto, with meetings and debates including not only intellectuals but also trade unionists and peasant organizers, may be another symptom. Of course, it is too soon to decide if we are or not witnessing the beginning of a new political-cultural rebirth of Marxism in Latin America.

Michael Löwy

Paris, France

Terry Murphy Replies:

IT IS WITH great pleasure that I offer these comments in reply to Michael Löwy. There are few socialist intellectuals whose books have so deeply shaped my own views. Books, however, must be interpreted: They thus have their fates.

The first point I want to raise relates directly to this issue of interpretation. I wonder whether Löwy has simply misread my attempt to summarize his own views due to my own clumsiness of expression, or whether I have been misreading him!

The full version of the second quote which appears in my original review reads as follows: “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).”

I think a rational justification for using a concept like elective affinity in sociology can best be undertaken using the broader and more dialectical criterion of truth rather than that of the scientific method.

After all, as a strictly scientific concept employed for a time in chemistry, elective affinity has been found wanting and discarded. [In this context it was the theoretical rationale for alchemy—ed.] In picking it up once again, it seems to me useful to offer a rationale for our decision. Can this be done in terms of the scientific method? I am not sure that it can.

In Löwy’s work, elective affinity is a radically different concept from the one that was rejected by chemists. How could it be tested scientifically in the sociology of culture?

Moreover, how does Löwy reconcile the scientific method with his prior commitment to the ideas of irreconcilable choice and the objective possibility of socialism? [”(T)he ultimately possible attitudes to life are irreconcilable…Thus it is necessary to make a decisive choice.” Max Weber, quoted by Löwy in The War of Gods, 2]

Are either of these two commitments part of the approach of the scientist in the laboratory—or even of all sociologists? Perhaps I am missing something. At any rate, the curious thing is that I do not disagree at all with the rest of his clarification, which makes me wonder about the true nature of the disagreement.

A New Religious Category?

The second point I want to make is in regard to Löwy’s Marxist re-engagement with religion.

In reading Max Weber recently, I was struck by his typology of the major forms of historical religious belief. Weber identifies three basic types which we can identify successively with Hinduism, Buddhism and Puritanism: world-accepting, world-rejecting and world-conquering.

With regard to the question as to whether liberationist Christianity is the harbinger of something new in the world, might it not be possible to add a fourth category to Weber’s list? Liberationist Christianity could then be reinterpreted not so much as the distant descendant of the medieval Catholic Church’s disdain for market relations, but rather as the twentieth century’s first instance of a new social form of spiritual alienation.

The typical forms of this religious restlessness or spiritual alienation would compel its believers to set as their goal world liberation. In this way, there would be a much broader opening for other religions, such as Islam, to develop comparable forms of contemporary spiritual alienation.

Obviously, Löwy is right to emphasize that any full understanding of these issues will require extensive empirical research. Nevertheless, it is to his credit that Marxists may once again approach the issue of religion with a wider perspective than that of Stalinist hostility or Western indifference.

Finally, I like the clarification that Löwy offers regarding the future of liberationist Christianity. It is helpful to be reminded that Marxism in Latin America was often less vital than radical forms of Christian belief, even before the collapse of the Berlin Wall. If it is primarily the Stalinist currents in Latin America that waned in the early 1990s, Löwy’s argument about the future of liberationist theology takes on new credibility.

The idea of elective affinity requires two poles of attraction. If, as Löwy tentatively suggests, new forms of Marxism are emerging in Latin America while radical Christians have continued their fight against dependent capitalism, the future of this world-liberating religion looks more assured to me.

ATC 84, January-February 2000