Among the far-reaching effects of the great antisocialist revolutions of 1989 is one that has so far not received a proper measure of attention, and that is their impact on Latin American liberation theology At least one liberation theologian, observing the collapse of the socialist dream in Eastern Europe, publicly expressed fear that the two estranged parts of “the North,” East and West, would now embrace each other heartily and forget the South. (The fear used to be “dependency”; now, apparently, it's independence.)
More generally, the loss of prestige suffered by international socialism after Tiananmen Square, and even more after the “velvet revolution” against socialist oppression in Eastern Europe, brought the “Marxist analysis” on which liberation theology so heavily depended into universal disrepute. The myth of the second world was punctured: the “second world” was in reality a heavily armed version of the third world. Mikhail Gorbachev warned his own people that by the beginning of the twenty-first century the Soviet Union was at risk of becoming a third world nation (at about the level of India). There came in addition the unmasking of the abuses committed under the Sandinistas in Nicaragua and the increasing recognition, even on the left, of the realities of Castro's police state in Cuba.
All this has left the liberation theologians with two separate and equally serious analytical problems, one having to do with economics and one having to do with politics. A little history is useful.
For two decades, liberation theologians blamed Latin American misery on “capitalist methods” such as markets, private property, and profits, and they looked for economic salvation by way of a “socialist” strategy of “basic needs.'' Often they had said of Eastern European socialist nations (as of Cuba) that, unattractive as they were in some respects, “at least they fulfill the basic needs of the people.” But in 1989 Eastern Europeans spoke contemptuously of “basic needs” as a strategy fit for prisoners in jail, not for free human beings. And they clamored for capitalist methods as a source of liberation from socialist oppression.
It turns out that the preoccupation of liberation theologians with useless socialist methods has left them with little practical to say to the poor of Latin America. Take just one specific problem: massive unemployment. In the year 2000, by all accounts, fewer Latin Americans than today will be employed by transnational corporations (which for some years now have been divesting in Latin America), even as fewer of them are likely to be engaged in agriculture. Where, then, will the scores of millions of Latin America's unemployed and underemployed find work? Their only hope lies in the growth of millions of new small businesses, making the products desperately needed by Latin Americans—the poor especially—and also providing necessary services. In all modern societies, small businesses meeting these needs are the chief job-creating engine.
Given these huge numbers of unemployed persons, no resource is more precious to the future of Latin America than enterprise. No other intellectual and moral virtue can bring together the immense number of idle hands with the immense amounts of work still to be done to improve the living conditions of the poor. It is sad to report that on matters relating to voluntary economic activity—business methods, laws of incorporation, sources of credit, market pricing, enterprise, and the moral virtues required for economic development—liberation theologians have had very little to say. Indeed, most of them remain to this day anti-capitalist by reflex.
It is not only in their prejudices against capitalism that the liberation theologians have been found wanting. One of their staunch defenders in the American academy. Professor Paul E. Sigmund of Princeton University, has recently pointed out (in his Liberation Theology at the Crossroads, 1990) that liberation theology faces another basic choice; it must choose between revolution and democracy. When liberation theology first appeared in the late 1960s and early 1970s, most of the regimes in Latin America were military dictatorships. “Marxist analysis” had virtually nothing to teach about democratic governance except that its institutions—parties, elections, offices, procedures—constituted merely a “formal” veneer, a “bourgeois illusion.” This led at least some liberation theologians to dismiss democracy as a “hoax,” while others debunked Western concepts of human rights as a “trap.” For such reasons, liberation theologians early appealed to “revolution” rather than to “democracy” They much preferred the anti-liberal traditions of Continental revolutionary thought to the sobriety of Anglo-American writers such as Sidney, Locke, Smith, Burke, Mill, Madison, and Lincoln, about whom, as Sigmund comments, they seemed poorly if at all informed.
Contrary to their expectations, however, the 1980s became the decade of democratic revolutions around the world, and by 1985 at least a dozen new democracies had appeared in Latin America. As 1990 Nobel Prize laureate in literature Octavio Paz has long been insisting, the Latin American soul has been won over by the democratic idea. Although Latin Americans still struggle to make democracy work in practice, they concede to no other regime an equal legitimacy. So what will liberation theologians have to contribute to the democratic project?
There is, perhaps, one thing. Liberation theologians committed themselves from the beginning to “listening” to the poor and to organizing them (along with students, lawyers, journalists, and others of the middle class) in comunidades de base, or base communities. (It should be noted that the concepts behind base communities in Latin America antedate liberation theology and that the movement is in some ways independent of it.) This important activity provided a necessary ingredient for the development of national democratic life—that process of grassroots self-organization that turns a “mass” or a “mob” into a people. Base communities by themselves are far from constituting a sufficient means for the functioning of representative government. But they do bring into play an important element, heretofore lacking in the civic life of Latin America.
One should not, however, exaggerate the numbers involved in base communities, as many liberationists do in identifying them as “the people.” Actually, the members of base communities represent only a tiny minority of Latin Americans. Even by Professor Sigmund's highly optimistic assessment, the number of Latin Americans involved in base communities would amount to about three or four million persons, or between one to two percent of the population of Latin America. Brazil is said to be home to the largest number of such groups—more than 70,000 such communities, according to Phillip Berryman, while Arthur E McGovern, S.J., estimates 80,000 to 100,000 groups. Since similar estimates have been employed by various writers for at least fifteen years, it is obvious that no one is actually counting; that no one knows how many are involved; and that growth, if it is occurring at all, is not nearly so rapid as the growth of evangelical Christian communities, which seem to be expanding by hundreds of thousands every few years.
It is clear in any case that liberation theologians were caught mostly unprepared for the Latin American democratic revolution of the 1980s. They were not, during that revolution, visible as a major force in organizing the poor for democratic action. One of the liberationists, Hugo Assmann, admitted this shortcoming, calling for a “transition to democracy”—a movement beyond face-to-face democracy to the public and formal democracy of parties and institutions. (Assmann himself is now active in the Workers Party of Brazil.) But one still looks in vain among the writings of liberation theologians to find discussions of the indispensable institutions of democratic (republican) government, such as guarantees of rights of minorities against the tyranny of the majority or divisions of responsibilities and functions that avoid dangerous concentrations of power.
In brief, the collapse of the socialist idea has deeply endangered the project of liberation theology. As an economic idea, socialism is now widely regarded as a mistake based on bad nineteenth-century economics. As a political idea, socialism is now widely regarded as too centralized and monolithic to secure basic human liberties. This leaves liberation theology's social theory in embarrassingly threadbare condition, and as sympathizer Phillip Berryman has conceded concerning the liberationists, “If their social theory is fundamentally wrong, their whole enterprise is in jeopardy.”
Defenders of liberation theology hope to rescue the situation by shifting the focus of attention from the movement's social theory to its theology. They insist that liberation theology at its deepest levels is primarily concerned with spirituality. For example, in Liberation Theology and Its Critics: Toward an Assessment (1989), Father McGovern de-emphasizes the movement's social theories and emphasizes its spiritual reflections. Evidence for this position is presumably found in such recent works by leading liberationist Gustavo Gutierrez as We Drink From Our Own Wells and On Job. Can it be true that liberation theology is “really” about spirituality?
Although not altogether absent, that was certainly not the major note that liberation theologians struck in the beginning. In those days they insisted on the inseparability of spirituality and revolutionary practice. They emphasized the concrete, material poverty of the poor and asserted that this poverty had to be overcome now, in this world, through dramatic social reconstruction. Indeed, they went so far as to accuse “European” theology of inauthenticity because it was too abstract, too speculative, too removed from the daily life of the poor.
Liberation theology, by contrast, was about “praxis”—the Marxist term for the revolutionary project of removing the oppression of the poor. In A Theology of Liberation, for example, Gutierrez penned a biting critique of the theme of “spiritual poverty” found in classical theology: “This approach in the long run leads to comforting and tranquilizing conclusions. This spiritualistic perspective rapidly leads to dead ends.”
At its inception, liberation theology was grounded in four key concepts linked together in a single proposition. The four concepts were praxis, the poor, oppression, and socialism, and the Latin American proposition was that through the practical work of building socialist societies, the poor of the third world would throw off the oppression they suffered at the hands of the first world, especially the United States. And liberation theologians, breaking from the classical theology practiced in Europe, would collaborate actively in this praxis.
Sometimes this collaboration was quite concretely-focused. Several years ago, when I was asked to speak on the liberation of the poor in Sao Paulo, Brazil, several hundred persons from local base communities entered the lecture hall early and filled up all the seats. To prevent me from speaking, they stomped their feet in cadence and loudly sang the National Anthem of the Sandinistas, while waving placards proclaiming their solidarity with Nicaragua, as if the new society being built in Nicaragua after the overthrow of Somoza was a concrete example of what liberation theologians were hoping to accomplish. For another model of the good society, some Brazilian theologians, such as Frei Betto, pointed to Cuba. Castro for his part clearly recognized the political gain in an alliance between liberation theology and Marxist revolution: “From a strictly political point of view—and I think I know something about politics—I believe that it is possible for Christians to be Marxists as well, and to work with Marxist Communists to transform the world.”
It may be that, chagrined over recent developments, liberation theologians have indeed moved from radical social reconstruction to Christian spirituality. If so, that is a development to be warmly welcomed. But in that case, one wonders what if anything remains of the original substance of the movement known as liberation theology.
If the liberationist “analysis” of poverty and oppression in Latin America can no longer be credited, what political hope for the future has been bequeathed to the poor by liberation theology? By all reports, pessimism and near-despair grip liberationists today, who see on the horizon very little indeed that offers hope of a better life to the poor of Latin America. But this darkness results from their own foreshortened vision. They have averted their eyes from—indeed, they have despised—the type of political economy that has elsewhere lifted the poor out of poverty and given them institutions of liberty under which to prepare their children for a better life. The willful blindness of the liberation theologians, their unwillingness to search in the world of social theory beyond the lucubrations of socialism, has had very high costs for the poor during these past twenty years.
The collapse of the Marxist paradigm offers reason to hope that the costs of this misbegotten form of social analysis will not continue to be borne by the poor.
Michael Novak, a member of the Editorial Board of First Things, is author of Will It Liberate? (1986), a new edition of which has recently been published by Madison Books.