Last November Pope Francis issued his apostolic exhortation Evangelii Gaudium (The Joy of the Gospel) and it immediately met resistance from some conservatives who charged Francis with Marxism. Francis denied the accusations, insisting there was nothing in the exhortation that contradicted the Church’s teaching on social doctrine. The attention brought to Marxism in the Catholic world provides an opportunity to explain what Marxism is before determining if Francis adopted Marxist positions. The term has become pejorative, but I want to be as fair as possible when describing the most powerful intellectual system since Christianity.
Marxism as an Economic System
Marx’s descriptions of capitalism are the deepest and most profound part of his voluminous writings. For Marx, the capitalist system is based on free trade and it is ruled by the bourgeoisie class, or those in Marxist lingo those who control the modes of production. The modes of production include labor (workers), capital (money) and the instruments of production (technology). The bourgeoisie uses these modes of production to coerce the proletariat, the working class. Society is dominated by the struggle between these two antagonistic classes, or the dialectic. In Marx’s times, the bourgeoisie were the factory owners and the proletariat the factory workers, but today, Marx’s ideas are easily applied to the rich and poor, irrespective of their labor.
For Marx, capitalism is a malignant economic system based on exploitation. The dehumanized worker exists merely so he can increase the profits of the bourgeoisie. The worker is alienated from his labor since he has no control over the commodities he produces. Capitalism breeds social alienation, too, since class stratification alienates us from each other. We merely exist as economic units. Contrary to what those living in capitalist societies are taught to believe, there is little freedom in capitalism. This naivety to the true nature of capitalism Marx calls false consciousness.
Capitalism is so powerful, it is the root of all realty. Philosophers call the study of reality metaphysics and Marx’s metaphysics can be defined in two words: Economic determinism. All history, political systems, ideas, morality, religion, elections, laws, war and vast amounts of other human behavior are guided by economics. In twenty-first century American political discourse, this means wars are fought for oil, the wealthy create laws in their interests and corporations give us the news they want us to hear. We are all slaves to the economic interests of the wealthy. Maybe the best way to understand economic determinism is to realize it is merely the idea that God controls most events turned on its head. Economics is providential, argues Marx, guiding all reality.
Economics even provides the foundation for religion. Marx, an atheist, believed religion is foisted on society by the wealthy in an effort to propagate false consciousness. He called religion the opium of the masses because it distracts us from the harsh realities of life. In one of his earliest works, On the Jewish Question, Marx declared that money had become the jealous God of Israel, before whom no other God was allowed. Christianity is no better. The ruling classes propagate Christianity, rationalizing that the hardships of this world as merely preparation for the next one. Christianity condones capitalism and exploitation by promising us something better in the next world.
But there is good news for Marx: Despite its apparent strength, the capitalist system is inherently self-destructive. Latent contradictions will undermine this capitalist superstructure, the social consequences of the capitalist system. Laws, religion, education and all social phenomena result from the doomed capitalist superstructure. Why doomed? Because the bourgeoisie, in an effort to maximize profits, will consistently invest in technology since it’s cheaper than human labor in the long-run. Even today, corporations rely on machines as substitutes for workers because machines don’t require wages, healthcare and can work twenty-four hours a day. This has a human cost, however. Marx predicts rising unemployment and a growing gap between the rich and the poor. As capitalism intensifies, the rich get richer and the poor get poorer.
Eventually the workers will gain class consciousness (as opposed to false consciousness) and recognize their mutual interest. They will unify, revolt and bring down the entire capitalism behemoth. Revolution! The capitalist superstructure will surrender to a socialist one, or a worker dominated economic system. This is not the final stage of economic history (and here Marx gets notoriously vague) but socialism will finally transform into communism, a world without classes, a world where:
The proletariat … will thereby have abolished its own supremacy as a class. In place of the old bourgeois society, with its classes and class antagonisms, we shall have an association in which the free development of each is the condition for the free development of all.
True freedom exists when people collectively organize society without private property.
Marxism as a Political System
Marx prophesized a violent transition from capitalism to socialism since the bourgeoisie would not surrender easily. Apocalypse looms as the class struggle reaches an Armageddon-esque climax:
[The workers] direct their attacks not against the bourgeois conditions of production, but against the instruments of production themselves; they destroy imported wares that compete with their labor, they smash to pieces machinery, they set factories ablaze, they seek to restore by force the vanished status of the workman of the Middle Age.
After Armageddon, a new world order emerges as government is guided by the proletariat. The meek will inherit the Earth. Marx describes a dictatorship of the proletariat when the working classes rule society under socialist auspices. During this era, new ways of thinking and living occur as the superstructure shifts from capitalism to socialism. As described above, socialism is a temporary measure as ultimately the state will wither away leading to glorious communism (Marx is vague how long this takes to happen). Communism is a political system without government and classes, a world void of free-trade, private property, classes and exploitation. It is the end of history, the end of all human progress.
For Marx, capitalist nations are not democracies. They are oligarchies created for the rich, by the rich. America’s founding fathers were hardly economically impoverished, after all. George Washington’s wealth rivaled that of the Kennedy’s. John Hancock was the richest man in Boston. The Adams and Jefferson’s were the Donald Trumps of their day. Naturally, they established political systems which favor them, Marxists insist. Characteristics of this bourgeoisie political system include: voting, a chief executive, equal rights, parliament, freedom of speech, freedom of religion, constitutions and what Marx calls the most unconscionable of all freedoms, free trade. For Marx, these are merely hallmarks of bourgeoisie oligarchy.
True democracy—a political system for the masses—exists in socialism. This explains why East Germany called itself the German Democratic Republic. Marxists contend Americans have been brainwashed by the wealthy. Real democracy exists in a socialist society, a society not controlled by the economic elites.
Marxism and Liberation Theology
These ideas that socialism promotes freedom more than capitalism seems oxymoronic to most Americans, but they guide Liberation Theology, a movement aimed at enriching the poor by “liberating” them from existing social structures. Particularly popular in Latin America, it was founded by Peruvian Dominican Father Gustavo Gutierrez. He contends his theology liberates the poor from unjust economic conditions by making profound changes to the entire social order, even changes in the way people think because they are shaped by material conditions. Class struggle and economic determinism are so central to Gutierrez, he argues economics shapes people’s spiritual life. In other words, our spiritual health is economically determined.
Another leading Liberation Theologian, Brazilian and former Franciscan Leonardo Boff, alleged the Catholic Church is analogous to the capitalist class who controls the modes of production. The whole hierarchy needs reformation, he argued in Church: Charism and Power. Some of his ideas about Liberation Theology can be found in the January 1989 issue of Crisis. And Marxist language dominates the essay:
The Kingdom [of God] should always be considered dialectically. It builds on contradiction. This contradiction does not exist in its interior (in the heart) or in the exterior (in society) since it realizes both dimensions, but it exists in its frontal antagonism, the anti-Kingdom. The Kingdom, as we see in the practice of Jesus, builds itself against the anti-Kingdom. The goods of the Kingdom are the attitudes and their structures that produce more justice, more life, more possibility for freedom, for human beings and the forms of their interaction.
In a work published in 1987, he insisted that communist regimes in Eastern Europe promoted Gospel-living more so than Western capitalist ones since they have more economic equality. Again, economic conditions determine spiritual beliefs.
In 1984, Cardinal Ratzinger (later Pope Benedict) called Liberation Theology a “fundamental threat to the faith of the Church.” Ratzinger argued Marxists had infiltrated Catholic teachings by introducing some of the concepts described above, like class struggle and economic determinism. He reminds the faithful that God, not economics, guides history. He condemned the Liberation Theology tendency to subordinate Catholic teachings in favor of class-struggle. Liberation theologians focus so heavily on the poor, Ratzinger argued, they ignored the wealthy, thereby rejecting the universalness of Christ’s teachings. Yes, the poor will inherit the Earth, but that doesn’t mean God’s Kingdom is closed to those with power. As Cardinal, he sanctioned Boff, prompting Boff to later accuse Ratzinger of “religious terrorism.” (Boff left the clergy in the 1990s.)
I believe Liberation Theology is fundamentally an attempt to do what had previously been reserved for God: bringing about a new world order where the poor will be rewarded. Liberation Theology is the result of changing cultural and intellectual conditions over the past five hundred years: The first five thousand years of Western history were theo-centered times, when God (or gods) controlled all events, but our modern era is dominated by an anthro-centered view which sees humans as the main agents of change. Modern Western culture—even among some devout Christians—grants human beings tremendous amounts of agency in the world. Consequently Liberation Theologians want to establish a world where the last are first by employing human means, specifically those prescribed by Marxists. They lack patience.
How does this relate to Pope Francis? Some speculated that Cardinal Bergoglio’s election could pave the way for Liberation Theology to play a more powerful role in the Church. After all, Bergoglio hailed from South America and gained prominence in the Church for his work with the poor. The aforementioned Boff contended, “With this pope, a Jesuit and a pope from the Third World, we can breathe happiness. Pope Francis has both the vigor and tenderness that we need to create a new spiritual world.” And as pope, Francis met privately with Gutierrez in September, two months before the publication of his Evangelii Gaudium. But all of this doesn’t add up to Marxism or even Liberation Theology. The most immediate evidence his accusers have against him come from several passes in Evangelii Gaudium and. Francis declares in EG 202,
The need to resolve the structural causes of poverty cannot be delayed…. As long as the problems of the poor are not radically resolved by rejecting the absolute autonomy of markets and financial speculation and by attacking the structural causes of inequality, no solution will be found for the world’s problems or, for that matter, to any problems. Inequality is the root of social ills.
As an opponent of Liberation Theology, I slightly cringe when hearing terms like (super?) “structural causes” of poverty and the contention that economic factors by themselves are the root of the social ills, but Francis must know that social problems are not merely the result of economic inequality.
He continues in EG 204,
We can no longer trust in the unseen forces and the invisible hand of the market. Growth in justice requires more than economic growth, while presupposing such growth: it requires decisions, programs, mechanisms and processes specifically geared to a better distribution of income, the creation of sources of employment and an integral promotion of the poor which goes beyond a simple welfare mentality. I am far from proposing an irresponsible populism, but the economy can no longer turn to remedies that are a new poison, such as attempting to increase profits by reducing the work force and thereby adding to the ranks of the excluded.
What riled some conservatives was Francis’ critique of Adam Smith’s “invisible hand” and in EG 54, he questions “trickle-down” economics. Translations also matter and despite the fact that these translations come from the Vatican’s website, some maintain these passages have been mistranslated in English. Regardless and more importantly, none of this makes Francis a Marxist. However, if Francis wants to completely disassociate himself from Liberation Theology, I would advise against suggesting profits lead to some sort of exclusion (alienation?). This language slightly concerns me, but I say this cautiously because again, translation may be an issue. (We historians of thought recognize the thorny task of interpreting the ideas of someone else. Language is just one obstacle.)
Of course Francis is not a Marxist. Those who claim otherwise focus only on specific parts of a broader message and mistakenly associate Marxism with anti-Capitalism. I hope the first half of this essay showed Marxism is more than a criticism of capitalism. Francis does not preach revolution, a communist political system or atheism. In reality, the above-cited passages are just a few paragraphs from an eighty-four page document. And the Catholic Church, long before Marx, long before Liberation Theologians, dedicated itself to serving the poor. In another essay, I showed that Marx was shaped by Christian doctrine, so concordance between Marx and Francis are symptomatic of Christian influence on Marx, not vice versa. Even if I don’t like some of the concepts he employs, Francis’ ends are consistent with the Gospel and his means are not Marxist.
Attempting to alleviate poverty is noble, but I would caution anyone from arguing the capitalist system leads to poverty and that our spiritual health increases as we mitigate capitalism, like Liberation Theologians do. We live in a more materialistic time than Christ, but we can’t forget that His message was fundamentally spiritual. In the Sermon on the Mount He proclaims we do not increase our spiritual wealth by improving our material conditions, rather we improve our material conditions by seeking spiritual wealth:
Therefore do not worry, saying, “What will we eat?” or “What will we drink?” or “What will we wear?’”For it is the Gentiles who strive for all these things; and indeed your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things. But strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.