Marxism and Religion: Sri Lanka, Libya, Central America and Liberation Theology
cwellen at pen.k12.va.us
Tue Aug 27 21:53:15 MDT 1996
Comradely Greetings from Wei En Lin:
Concerning the discussion on Religion and Marxism, I believe Louis
Godena and I are talking at cross purposes. I believe he is ignoring my
main point; and he believes I do not understand his.
Allow me to speak about what I find admirable and praiseworthy in the
I find this passage of particular interest:
<<"Liberation Theology" is, in liberal quarters, the patron saint of
the Central American liberation movements of the 70s and early 80s.
Little is heard from it now. In El Salvador, it's adherents came to
preach a policy of compromise and, ultimately, capitulation to the
US--backed government. It's ostensible aims were "peace, justice,
bread." It did not specifically eschew violence, but it exerted an
inexorable influence within the FMLN toward negotiations, first with
Duarte, and then, in the course of events, with Arena. It favored,
at one time, a coaltion government with the death squad organizer and
CIA operative D'Aubiossion. The personalities and ideologies within
"liberation theology", in my opinion, contributed immeasurably to the
defeat of the Salvadoran revolution. In Nicaragua, its influence was
more dilute; there was greater heterogeneity within the liberation
movement itself, though the progressive wing of the Church, LT's
natural locale, did move to the right after 1989. It's record,
overall, is ambiguous and unclear.>>
This is an analysis worth careful consideration. I am not aware of the
exact causes of the failure of the FMLN to take power. I did not know
that Liberation Theology was for a policy of compromise or capitulation.
If this is true I would like to see more evidence. My impression was
that the move toward negatiations was prompted by tactical concerns
originally; but that ultimately the FMLN considered the conquest of
power to be an impossibility (given the collapse of the Sandinista
I agree that the record of Liberation Theology is, as you say,
'ambiguous and unclear.'
And it is precisely for that reason that Liberation Theological
discourse should be given careful consideration. If the record is
unclear, then the possibility remains that it may in some cases it may
As to its power fading, I think Liberation theology is just beginning to
make itself know to the broad masses, whereas in the beginning it was
known only to some theorists and some revolutionaries. More and more
priests are using the pulpit to denounce capitalism in Liberation
theological terms, at least in Central America.
In a later posting I will offer some quotes from Gustavo Guttierez, on
the leading Theologions of Liberation, and you can judge its value for
My impression is that the wholesale rejection of all religious language
is a mistaken tactic. If you can prove or suggest that Christianity is
incompatible with Capitalism , then you are able to harness the power of
faith, and energize believers in the pursuit of justice (Christianity
and Capitalism are incompatible, if one divorces the sayings of prophets
>from the doctrines of ecclesiatical authorities)
Regarding some of your other points, Mr. Godena, you say
<<I am hopeful, too, that we can dispense with discussing at length
obscure or arcane movements from centuries ago that, for Mr Wei, have
some topical interest, but appear irrelevant to late 20th Century
We can dispense with discussing them if you wish. I take no offense in
your desire to focus on the contemporary.
Concerning events in Sri Lanka, you say,
<<Sarvodaya, as Mr Wei may have learned during his residence there, is
part of the Asian Buddhist Conference for Peace (ABCP), originally a
close ally of the old Soviet--sponsored World Peace Council (with which,
incidentally, I fellow-travelled back in the late 80s--I was on the
National Board of the US Peace Council for, I believe, 8 months in
1989-90). The ABCP, it may interest Mr Wei to know, has moved
substantially to the right since the fall of the Berlin Wall. It now
welcomes western investment capital, as long as the "religious, ethnic,
and cultural unity of Buddhists are preserved.">>
This does interest me, and I respect the knowledge you have gained from
your association with the ABCP, something I know nothing about. I hope
you would grant equal respect for knowledge I have gained from living in
Sri Lanka, and from having frequent contacts with members of Sarvodaya.
I did not say that Sarvodaya was a perfect revolutionary organization.
There is no such thing. But, compared with other groupings in Sri
Lanka, I would say that Sarvodaya has, more than any other group,
organized the peasants to practice grass-roots democracy and create a
feeling of empowerment among the vast majority of poor Sri Lankans.
Their ideology and their practices are for the most part, progressive.
This remained true in 1991, when I was last there. You make an astute
observation when you say:
"Sarvodaya favors small scale agriculture and industry; it has
no program (I am looking at their Fifteen Points from 1993) for
liberating the land ("land to the tiller") or for nationalizing even key
industries. It is fiercely nationalistic in a way that the Maoists never
were, . . . It is heavily dependent upon hierarchy as a means to settle
disputes, including matters of marriage and divorce. It is,
according to some, becoming more and more inward looking.
Sarvodaya is far more clever than you think. They have a long term plan
which scares the Government to death. The reason they favor small scale
industry is that large large scale industry is under the control of the
multinationals and the Big Bourgeoisie in the Capital, Colombo.
However, they have taken active control of the de facto governments of
over half the localities. When they reach a critical mass, they can
make a bid for national power. This is generally understood by all
members, though Sarvodaya states this only very subtley in its
platforms. All industries will be democratized if Sarvodaya succeeds
in penetrating the larger cities.
As far as Sarvodaya being 'fiercely nationalistic' I am not sure what
you mean. They are far less nationalistic than either of the mainstream
political parties, which strive to outdo each other in impressing the
urban public with their dedication to destroying the Tamil separatist
movement. I have not met members of a less nationalist grouping in Sri
Lanka (perhaps the Trotskyist party in Colombo, a small grouping is
less nationalist) My own contacts with the Maoists revealed them to be
ultranationalist, and ultra-Buddhist, in that they have and have had
close connections with numerous elements low down in priestly hierarchy.
May of them are priests. A significant number of Buddhists priests were
sided with and directed the JVP uprisings of the 70's. The government
allowed some of these elements to pursue their goals, in the hopes that
peasant hostility to the Tamils would be inflamed. In the end the
government lost control and the Maoist Buddhist priests were brutally
The Sarvodaya movement on the other hand has created a new type of grass
roots Buddhism, independent of the traditional hierarchy, a working
class Buddhism which exorts its followers to solidarity with all
regardless of religious affiliation. (Sri Lanka is about 60% Buddhist,
25 % Hindu, and the remainder various Christian denominations).
In connection with Libyan socialism, you say Kaddafi . . .
. . .is anti-imperialist. He has nationalized key industries. He has
proven moderate on social issues. He has given material resources in
the past to liberation movements in Africa (e.g. ANC, MPLA). His use
of Islam--his official stance is "non-aligned"--has varied from the
moderate to the reactionary (e.g. his relations with the Sudan). His
program, too, is fiercely nationalistic.
This is a fair summary of Kaddafi's Libya. Seen in its
socio-historical context, and in the context of the Arab World, I would
conclude that Kaddafi's socialism, his "Third International Theory," is
in many ways a success. His popular committees have given local
communities a great deal of political power. I would suggest to those
interested to read his "Green Book," which is a fascinating adaptation
of Marxist theory to the conditions of Africa and the Arab world. One
has to admire his ingenuity in reworking classical marxist thinking to
make it easily comprehensible to working class and peasant (Bedouin)
Arabs. In the Green Book, Kaddafi is very careful on the question of
religion . . . He does not endorse any of Islam's reactionary social
ideology. Instead, he appropriates traditional ideas of Islamic
community which are compatible with socialism.
As regards Kaddafi's being 'fiercely nationalistic' I do not think so.
Kaddafi, in the tradition of Nasser, is a Pan Arab Socialist. He quite
rightly sees Pan-Arabism as step toward the creation of an Arab nation
which can stand independently as a bulward against Euro-American
imperialism. In contrast to provincial Arab rivalries, Pan-Arabism is a
step forward towards Internationalism.
Louis Godena concludes by saying:
<<I have said that there is a fundamental difference between the
teachings of Christ, Buddha, Lao Tze, and the revolutionary Marxism
of Marx, Engels, and Lenin. The former is voluntaristic, idealist,
and ultimately, hierarchical and profoundly antithetical to humanism.>>
This interpretation of Christ, Buddha, and Lao Tze is certainly
plausibe. I am not arguing against it. What I am arguing is that the
discourses of Christ, Buddha, and Lao Tze are subject to a wide variety
of interpretations. There as many ways to interpret the Bible, the
Dhammapaddha, and the Tao as there are people.
I am saying BE CREATIVE. Interpret religious texts and symbols so as
to show the incompatibility of the religious idea with capitalism WHEN
NECESSARY. I am not urging Marxists to become religious. I am
suggesting that Religion, when it is consonant with social justice,
with puting an end to exploitation, and with abolishing capitalism, can
be a positive force.
Wei En Lin.
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