Influence of Marx

As part of the OCR Developments in Christian Theology AS specification you need to know about Karl Marx.  The OCR specification says that you need to be able to explain the ways in which liberation theologians make explicit and implicit use of Marx.  In particular, you need to be able to explain the concepts of alienation, exploitation and false consciousness.  You should be familiar with the main aims of Marx and be able to talk about both implicit and explicit use of his ideas by liberation theologians.


Karl Marx was a nineteenth century German economic theorist and philosopher. He is best remembered now for having had the ideas that led to the development of communism and for being buried in Highgate cemetery in London!  His most famous books are The Communist Manifesto and Das Kapital.  

Marxist ideas were used both explicitly and implicitly by liberation theologians. Gustavo Gutierrez used Marx implicitly whilst Leonardo Boff and Jose Miranda (author of Marx and the Bible) explicitly discussed the relationship between Marxism and Christianity.

In general, liberation theologians uses Marx as a tool for understanding poverty. They do not adopt his ideas wholesale, but borrow concepts and terminology which they find helpful.  In the following (useful!) passage Boff set out very clearly how liberation theology used Marx.

'In liberation theology, Marxism is never treated as a subject on its own but always from and in relation to the poor. Placing themselves firmly on the side of the poor, liberation theologians ask Marx:'What can you tell us about the situation of poverty and ways of overcoming it?'  Here Marxists are submitted to the judgement of the poor and their cause, and not the other way around.'

'Therefore, liberation theology used Marxism purely as an instrument.  It does not venerate it as it venerates the gospel.  And it feels no obligation to account to social scientists for any use it may make - correct or otherwise of Marxist terminology and ideas...To put it in more specific terms, liberation theology freely borrows from Marxism certain 'methodological pointers' that have proved fruitful in understanding the world of the oppressed.'


Boff took pains to stress that liberation theology is not the same as Marxism. Marx's ideas were used because they were perceived to be useful in the Latin American context.

You can read Fitzgerald's article (along with the rest of the Cambridge Companion to Liberation Theology) online here.

Furthermore, the Marxist aim (a classless society) could be said to be more Christian than an classist capitalist society.  Valpy Fitzgerald in his article 'The economics of liberation theology' (found in The Cambridge Companion to Liberation Theology) summed up the appeal of Marxist ideas thus:

'According to liberation theology, capitalism has clearly been incapable of satisfying basic needs in Latin America, despite the fact that government and business leaders are professed Christians.  Socialism in practice has not provided a satisfactory solution either: although advances have been made in basic needs provision...None the less, the socialist ideal is more suitable than capitalism...'

Despite these claims, critics of liberation theology have often attacked liberation theologians for their use of Marx. 

Dialectical view of history:

Marx borrowed from Hegel a dialectical view of history.  Hegel believed that the world was progressing through stages to a more complete view of the world.  Hegel thought that the way one system replaces another was by being challenged by its opposite.

Marx agreed with the idea that each system would be challenged and eventually replaced, but he thought that the basis of this progress was economic (whereas for Hegel it was more philosophical).  Marx's approach is sometimes described as historical materialism.  

Economic systems would be replaced because (according to Marx) any economic system which includes different classes of people will have problems within it.  Overtime, these problems will become more and more apparent. Eventually, someone will challenge that economic view and suggest a new one.  This causes a period of struggle as some people want to stick to the old ways and others want to embrace the new ways.  At some point, a compromise will be reached and a new system will be established.  This new system then gives birth to new structures and new ideas.

Thus thesis (old view) plus antithesis (new view) leads to synthesis (compromise and a new approach).

Marx thought that there was evidence that history had moved through these stages.  Slavery been replaced by feudalism, and feudalism by capitalism.  Capitalism was an improvement on slavery (the workers are paid) and an improvement on feudalism (they have relative freedom in who they work for) but he thought that it was still a flawed system (the masses - proletariate - are exploited by a minority - the bourgeoisie).

Historical materialism is the idea that economics is the basis of everything! The political structures a society has, its philosophy, even its art are a reflection of the concerns of the economic ruling class.  Furthermore, each economic ruling class is destined to be superseded through class struggle.

Liberation  theologians accept Marx's historical materialism and agree that economic concerns must be addressed if society is to progress.  They also see the dialectical approach as offering a promising pattern for changing society.  By challenging the status quo liberation theologians could present an antithesis to what they perceived to be a corrupt and exploitative system.  

Liberation theology's interest in economics as the solution to the problem of oppression could be said to derive from their acceptance of Marx understanding of history.  This is further evident when we come to look at Marx's explanation of exploitation.


Marx believed that wage labour (paying people to do a job) always involved exploiting them.  This is because to make a profit the employer has to pay the labourer less for their work than the economic value of the thing they produce.  For example, if a farm manager pays labourers to produce a crop then he must pay them less than the market value of the crop so that he can make a profit when he sells it.

Marx argued that exploitation was intrinsic to a capitalist system. In other words, it is impossible to have a capitalist system that does not exploit people.

Poverty can be viewed in different ways.

It could just be seen as a fact of life.  Some people are poor.  There is no underlying cause to be addressed.  One can help the poor by giving them charity.  This is the empirical view of poverty.

Alternatively, one could attribute poverty to the backwardness of a country.  They are poor because they are less developed.  The solution is to help them develop.  This is the functional view of poverty.

Finally, liberation theologians follow Marx in arguing that the poor are poor because they are oppressed.  This is the dialectical view of poverty.  The way to help them is to end oppression.

Liberation theologians like Leonardo Boff used Marx's ideas as a tool for the socio-analytic mediation.  Marx provided a way of understanding poverty in terms of exploitation.  For liberation theologians whose aim is to try to end poverty understanding the cause is important (it is impossible to solve a problem until you understand what causes it).

Liberation theologians do not generally go as far as to argue for a wholesale  rejection of capitalism but they do think that Marx provides a very useful critique of the excesses of capitalism.

In Latin America, the tradition of latifundia and hacienda meant that much of the land was in the hands of wealthy land owners who were in a position to exploit their work force.  Consequently, Marx seemed to provide an accurate explanation of the problems in Latin America.  (See notes on land and environment).


According to Marx, wage labour also involves alienation.

The simplist way to to explain this is to begin with a person who is not alienated.  Imagine a person who owns a small plot of land and runs it as a small holding.  Their work has intrinsic value to them because they are working to produce things that they themselves will use.  They choose what to produce and they own what they produce.  They would have a sense of self-worth and pride in what they do.

Contrast them with the person who works in a repetative dead-end job for someone else.  Their work has no intrinsic value to them. They do not use the finished product.  The people they work with are also just cogs in the machine and they have a low sense of self-worth.

Consequently, they are alienated from

  • Their work (it has no intrinsic value or enjoyment.  They don't work for themselves).
  • The product (they do not use or own what they produce)
  • Other workers (they are competition)
  • Their own human nature (they are not an autonomous human being but are owned by someone else.

Liberation theologians agreed that exploitation caused alienation.  In their eyes, poverty and oppression alienated people from their God-given human nature.  Capitalist society had been guilty of seeing people as a raw material for making money rather than as fellow human beings created in the image of God.  Liberation theologians aimed to restore the dignity of the poor by giving them autonomy and some control over their own destiny.  

Owning the means of production:

According to Marx the only reason a person would sell themselves as labour for hire (and thus put themselves in a position to be exploited) was that they were not in a position to work for themselves.  This was because the bourgeoisie owned the things necessary to produce food and goods.

Consequently, for Marx, the solution to the problem of exploitation was for the workers themselves to own the means of production.  If they communally owned the factories, farms and industries then they would be able to share to profit evenly.  

This would remove the problem of exploitation because they would not be being paid less for their work than the value of their work.

In many instances liberation theologians supported the land reforms which sought to end the uneven distribution of land in Latin America.  (See notes on land and environment).  In addition to this some CEBs were able to organise trade cooperatives which gave the poor the option of selling the product of their labours for a fair price in return.  Liberation theologians became vocal critics of exploitative labour practices.  At Medellin the bishops stated 'to create a just social order is an eminently Christian task' and warned 'those who have a greater share of wealth, culture and power' that 'if they jealously retain their privileges...they are responsible to history for provoking 'explosive revolutions of despair'.'

Furthermore, in some ways the CEBs could be seen as an attempt to 'own the means of production' in religious terms.  Rather than being passive consumers of religion provided for them the poor became theologians and interpreted the bible in the light of their own situation.  See notes on CEBs.

False consciousness:

In order to bring about change Marx believed that it was first necessary to alert the oppressed masses to the possibility of change.  He thought that in many instances the proletariat were in a state of false consciousness because they did not realise that they were exploited and they did not realise that things could be different. 

This might seem far fetched (surely people would realise they are exploited?!) but imagine the following scenario.

  • You are used to being poor because your family always has been.  Almost everyone else you know is in the same position as you.  The only person you knew who challenged that position got severely punished for expressing their views.  The Church has told you that God appoints people to different roles in life and that you should accept your own lot in life.  Your landlord has told you that peasantry like you are too stupid to manage your own land anyway.

To such a person exploitation would seem normal.  They would obviously not like being poor, but they might well think that it is unavoidable and just the way that things are.

The Latin American bishops agreed at Medellin that priests should use their pulpits for consciousness-raising (or conscientization). They should aim to 'awaken in individuals and communities...a living awareness of justice...[and] a sense of responsibility and solidarity.

The liberation theologian Gustavo Gutierrez said that as well as liberating people from the physical things that oppress them (unfair laws, economic oppression etc) people also need to be liberated from oppressive ideas that restrict their ability to flourish as human beings.

Liberative hermeneutics could play an important role in consciousness-raising. Stories like the Exodus and Jesus' message to the poor could be used to make it clear that poverty is not part of God's plan but occurs as a result of sin.  This message contrasted with what the Church had sometimes taught - that wealth is a reward from God and that people should accept their God-given lot in life.

Reversal and Revolution:

Marx's ultimate aim was for a classless society (a communist state).  However, he recognised that people who have power and money would be unlikely to give it up willingly for the sake of greater fairness.  Therefore, he believed it would be necessary for there to be a socialist revolution in which the proletariat (working class) seized power from the bourgeoisie (middle class).

He considered that violent revolution would be justified given the greater good that would come from it.

At Medellin the bishops voiced the need for 'political change' as a prerequisite for social improvement.  Potentially this could be seen as an endorsement of revolution.  The bishops also stated 'we, as bishops, wish to come closer to the poor in scincerity and brotherhood'.  As part of this the bishops recognised that the Church should not itself be wealthy.  'The poverty of the church and of its members in Latin America ought to be a sign and a commitment - a sign of the inestimable value of the poor in the eyes of God.'  

Gutierrez encouraged Christians to 'build a new society' and to support the 'exploited classes' in their struggle against their oppressors which could be understood in the Marxist sense of entering into the class struggle on behalf of the poor. Gutierrez advocated a 'preferential option for the poor' which suggests reversal in action.  This phrase was not used at Medellin (although the idea of having a particular concern for the poor is present).  At the Latin American Bishops' third conference at Puebla in 1979 the bishops agreed that 'the poor merit preferential attention' 'we affirm the need for conversion on the part of the whole Church to a preferential option for the poor.'

Liberation theologians would argue that the ideas of revolution and reversal is found in the Bible as well as in Marx.  Jesus preached that 'the first shall be last and the last shall be first' (Matthew 20:16) and appeared to align himself with the poor and the outcasts rather than the rich and the powerful. He said that he had come to 'bring good news to the poor' and to 'set the captives free' (Luke 4:18).  Consequently, it is not simply that liberation theologians borrowed the idea of reversal from Marx, they felt that it echoed what the Bible said.  (See notes on Jesus the liberator).


Marx famously said 'the philosophers have only interpreted the world, the point is to change it' (in his Thesis on Feuerbach).  He believed that one should not stand back and describe the processes by which history changed.  Instead one should get involved.  The term 'praxis' can be translated as 'action' but it is action directed towards a certain end.  For Marx, this end was the socialist revolution and eventual communist state.

Although he used Hegel's dialectical view of history (see above) he rejected his idealism in favour of historical materialism.  For Hegel the world progressed through the unfolding of ideas and one idea challenging another.  For Marx, progress happened through class struggle in history.  Praxis is the entering into this class struggle to bring about change/.


Gustavo Gutierrez said 'to know God is to do justice'.  He argued that theology should 'be part of the process through which the world is transformed'.  

He also advocated 'active effective participation in the struggle which the exploited classes have undertaken against the ir oppressors'.  The Marxist undertones are clear.

Liberation theology advocates orthopraxis (right action) over orthodoxy (right belief).

Whilst the terminology reflects Marx, the ideas that should underpin orthopraxis were more specifically Christian.  For Marx, orthopraxis was about working for a socialist revolution to bring about a communist state.  For liberation theologians, orthopraxis meant putting Christians beliefs into practise and working to bring about the Kingdom of God on earth by living according to God's rules.

Of course Christianity has always taught that beliefs should be put into practice, what is distinctive about liberation theology is that it advocated active engagement in areas like politics and in economics - areas which have traditionally been regarded as secular (secular = non-religious).  Liberation theologians emphasised that religion should affect the whole of life, not just certain areas of it. Thus nothing can be regarded as 'off-limits' from the point of view of religion.


Marx had a negative view of religion and famously described it as 'the opium of the masses'.  This quotation sums up his opinion that religion numbed the suffering that many people experience without actually doing anything about the cause of that suffering. Like opium it is a palliative - kills pain but solves nothing.

Marx thought that religion actually made revolution less likely as people were content to pin their hopes on an afterlife and accept what they perceived to be God's will.

Obviously liberation theologians did not accept Marx's condemnation of religion. However, they did accept that Christianity had not always sided with the oppressed and had sometimes been guilty of contributing to oppression. Liberation theologians aimed to create a socially aware version of Christianity which showed an active preferential option for the poor.  They would argue that the impetus for this came from the Bible itself.  Consequently, they would argue that Marx' critique of religion was based on a corrupted version of religion, the Church in a state of 'institutional fossilisation' (as Boff described it).


Evaluation of liberation theologians' use of Marx tends to focus on whether it is too Marxist or - from the opposite perspective - not Marxist enough.

Too Marxist:

The 1984 Cardinal Ratzinger (who later became Pope Benedict I) wrote a critique of liberation theology entitled Instruction on Certain Aspects of Liberation Theology (Libertatis Nuntius).  He criticised their 'uncritical' use of Marxist ideas.  Ratzinger warned that the 'certain forms of liberation theology which use, in an insufficiently critical manner, concepts borrowed from various currents of Marxist thought' which he regarded as 'damaging to the faith' and a 'deviation' from true Christian faith. 

His first point is that one could not take parts of Marxist ideas and ignore others. Marxism comes as an all or nothing package.

'Thus no separation of the parts of this epistemologically unique complex is possible. If one tries to take only one part, say, the analysis, one ends up having to accept the entire ideology.'

Ratzinger argues that Marxism is inherently unChristian.

'Let us recall the fact that atheism and the denial of the human person, his liberty and rights, are at the core of the Marxist theory.' 


The liberation theologian Gustavo Gutierrez said that the the Christian faith means that one should have a 'commitment to abolish injustice and to build a new society; this theology must be verified by the practice of commitment, 'by active effective participation in the struggle which the exploited classes have undertaken against the ir oppressors'.

Whilst he does not explicitly refer to Marx the language choice clearly implies Marx.  He seems to be saying that entering into a Marxist class struggle is a Christian duty.

He explains that this is because;

  1. It ignores the needs of the individual (the individual may be sacrificed for the greater good of the eventual communist state). 
  2. Concepts like 'class-struggle' are at odds with the Christian principle of agape (brotherly love) towards all others.

The concept of 'class struggle' is central to Marxism.  Accepting a Marxist analysis of the problems within society carries with it an obligation to enter into this class struggle.  This means that Marx not only tolerates violence but actively advocates it as a necessary part of the transformation of society.  This places it at odds with Christian principles.

'The class struggle is presented as an objective, necessary law... Consequently, the conception of the truth goes hand in hand with the affirmation of necessary violence, and so, of a political amorality. Within this perspective, any reference to ethical requirements calling for courageous and radical institutional and structural reforms makes no sense.'

'As a result, participation in the class struggle is presented as a requirement of charity itself. The desire to love everyone here and now, despite his class, and to go out to meet him with the non-violent means of dialogue and persuasion, is denounced as counterproductive and opposed to love. If one holds that a person should not be the object of hate, it is claimed nevertheless that, if he belongs to the objective class of the rich, he is primarily a class enemy to be fought. '

Not only is violence unchristian, but it is also misguided.  Ratzinger argued that violence cannot be the way of bringing about a better world.

'To put one's trust in violent means in the hope of restoring more justice is to become the victim of a fatal illusion: violence begets violence and degrades man. It mocks the dignity of man in the person of the victims and it debases that same dignity among those who practice it.'

Going further - evaluate:

Consider how liberation theologians might respond to Ratzinger's criticisms.

One could argue that Marx is not an 'all or nothing' theory. You can use the useful ideas without accepting all of it. Boff argues that Marx is used as a tool and concepts borrowed and reinterpreted.

You could consider whether liberation theologians really use Marx 'uncritically'.  The Medellin document said that Marxism 'ideologically supports a kind of humanism [but] is more concerned with collective humanity and in practice becomes a totalitarian concentration of state power.'  This suggests that the bishops were aware of the problems with Marxist ideology.  Did Ratzinger present liberation theology accurately or did he caricature it?

In 1987 Segundo wrote a book called 'Theology and the Church: A response to Cardinal Ratzinger'.  He argued that Ratzinger ignored Vatican II and denied that Liberation Theology is Marxist.

Ratzinger suggested that liberation theology tends to encourage people to mix up social progress with the idea of the coming of the Kingdom of God (i.e. they regard them as the same thing).  This means that salvation becomes something that people can attain for themselves rather than being something that comes from God.  This approach is 'reductionist' in that it oversimplifies the Christian message and removes or ignores some of the most important elements (e.g. the afterlife).

Furthermore, the use of Marx has other implications.  For example, it affects the way that scripture is read. 

  • Traditional theology is rejected. 'Theologians who do not share the theses of the "theology of liberation", the hierarchy, and especially the Roman Magisterium are thus discredited in advance as belonging to the class of the oppressors.'  This makes dialogue impossible.
  • The Bible is read in a politicised way.  Stories like the Exodus became read for their political content.  'The mistake here is not in bringing attention to a political dimension of the readings of Scripture, but in making of this one dimension the principal or exclusive component. This leads to a reductionist reading of the Bible.'
  • This detracts from the distinctiveness of the gospel message.

Pope Francis I (the current Pope) comes from Latin America and has spoken out against inequality and injustice.  Whilst he has not condoned the use of Marxist ideas within liberation theology he has said:

'The ideology of Marxism is wrong. But I have met many Marxists in my life who are good people.'

Pope Francis speaking in December 2013.  Reported in the Guardian here.

Not Marxist enough:

Alistair Kee wrote a book called 'Beyond Liberation Theology' in which he argued that liberation theology is not Marxist enough.  Like Ratzinger, Kee thought that Marxist thought was an all or nothing package.  He said that by ignoring Marx's criticism of religion it had created an inauthentic theological interpretation of Marx that actually 'tames' it.

'The failure [of liberation theology] arises not from too much attention to Marx’s social analysis, but from too little attention to his criticism of religion.'

Kee argued that religion will have less influence as society develops.  Thus as society in Latin America developed religion would become less important - and liberation theology would become redundant. 

Furthermore, to use Marx merely to critique and reject capitalism is also a misreading of Marx because (according to Kee) Marx recognised that Capitalism is an essential stage in the progress of society.  Capitalism overthrows the evils of feudalism.  It in turn needs to be overthrown by popular revolution, not just rejected on intellectual grounds.

Other considerations:

You might also like to think about the following considerations:

  • Do you find Marx's theory convincing?  Is he right to say that capitalism necessarily involves exploitation?  Is he correct to say that all progress has a historical basis?  Have his ideas worked in practice?  If his theory doesn't work then presumably it would be foolish of liberation theology to use it!
  • A related question is whether Marx's ideas are too contextual to be useful in a different context.  How similar was twentieth century Latin America to nineteenth century Prussia?  Do terms like proletariat, bourgeoisie and class struggle really apply?
  • How compatible do you think Christianity and Marxist ideas are?  To what extent was the early church 'communist' in structure? Do you think Jesus' encouraged social revolution?
  • What is your view on whether or not Christians (or religion in general) should get involved in politics/economics.  What is the value of religion?  What role should it play?

Further Reading:

Link to excellent liberation theology website here.  This link takes you to the critical reflections page.

Article assessing Jose Miranda's book Marx and the Bible published in the Oxford Left Review here.

Another detailed article about Miranda's work.

Complete text of the Libertatis Nuntius (Ratzinger criticism of liberation theology) here.

Brief but detailed summary of Alistair Kee's book here.

Valpy Fitzgerald's article on the economics of liberation theology (in The Cambridge Companion to Liberation Theology) here.