Liberation Theology in a Postmarxist Era: The Philippine Context

By Kathleen Nadeau

Kathleen Nadeau is an assistant professor of Anthropology at California State University, San Bernardino. She completed her MA in anthrolology at the University of San Carlos, Cebu City, Philippines and a PhD in Anthropology from Arizona State University. She conducted field work from 1993-1994 on the BCC movement in the Philippines. Her most recent research in progress is on prostitution issues and transnational migration.

Religious distress is at the same time the expression of real distress and also the protest against real distress. Religion is the sigh of the oppressed, the heart of the heartless world, just as it is the spirit of spiritless conditions (Karl Marx and Engels, 1984).

The whole community of believers was one in heart and mind. No one claimed any of their possessions as their own; but rather they shared all things in common (Acts of the Apostles, 4:32).


Marxism may have failed, as much because of its rejection of religions as because of the tendency of Marxist regimes to “misinterpret Marx” in an attempt to establish totalitarian states. Or rather religion, as a transformative force, establishes a connection between worldly and otherworldly justice. This enables religiously motivated movements such as the small Christian communities and engaged-Buddhists to build communities that transcend, rather than sharpen social classes based on class, ethnicity, and gender. Until recently, there have been attempts by ruling elites to characterize village self-help movements in Asian religious traditions such as the small Filipino Christian communities as “communist” or “leftist” because they, like Marxist movements, seek to ameliorate the suffering of the poor. The collapse of Marxist regimes has made this critique increasingly untenable. Ruling elites can no longer use the charge of “godless communism” to vilify those who would challenge them from below. It is, in a sense, ironic that the collapse of Marxism has perhaps enhanced the ability of the poor, the weak and oppressed to challenge the structures of domination that have so adversely influenced their lives. Whether the political space opened by the failure of Marxism to effect basic change will allow religious movements to succeed remains to be seen. But it is clear that they will play an increasingly significant role in the discourse and praxis of development for a long time to come.

This paper looks at the contemporary emergence of the small Christian community movement in the Philippines. It is divided into two parts. Part one discusses Marx’s theory as used by Louis Althusser. Part two applies Marx’s theory to the situation of Southeast Asia paying particular attention to the Basic Ecclesial Communities (BEC) movement in Philippine contexts.

The concept of religion used in relation to the BEC is not an abstract category of meaning existing at some universal level but one discursively, practically, and materially grounded. Asad (1983) explored this way of looking at religion by explaining how power constitutes the conditions that formulate religious ideology, distinctive personalities, religious discourses, practices, and knowledge (1983:237). Asad proposed that the primary question that needs to be addressed by students of religion is not the question of religious meaning; rather it is the political question of how certain symbols become established and how they are changed. His point is that the dominant symbols and classifications accepted in society are part of the ideology of the leading classes or leading fraction of a class in a classless society, as is the case in some hunting and gathering societies. In Crick’s words, “They are constructions which are imposed and pass as knowledge only because the symbolic imposition is accepted as an act of power” (1982:303).

Asad examined the history of western Christianity because it provides a rich store of documented sources from which to formulate questions for religious inquiry. Asad’s theory is that the many varied denominations and assemblies that Christianity takes today are quite different from the form it took in medieval times. In those days, power was defined differently and it had different results. Religiosity worked its way through different human institutions and notions of self that constructed, legitimated, and distributed different categories of knowledge. One of the effects of this variable distribution of power is that religion is a result, not a cause, of the historical processes which shape, perpetuate, and transform it, so there can be no universal definition of religion applicable to the study of religion everywhere (Asad 1983:238). In other words, religion needs to be investigated in all of its historical specificity that is an often-repeated theme in Marxist anthropology. Not surprisingly, Asad noted that there were no serious attempts to systematize a universal definition of religion until the seventeenth century, precisely because the attempt was an expression of the expansion of repressive and ideological conceptions of specific relations of power and knowledge. Religion then came to be abstracted from its context and universalized with subtle and explicit force. But, in actuality, the definition of religion was merely a reference to established rules and practices that were developed to screen, oversee, and authorize specific relationships of power and knowledge from a singular papal source (1983).

Feuchtwang (1984) called for a Marxist theory of social practice to research religion because it is a theory from which all other forms in a society are derived in a given social and economic formation. Such an analytical technique can readily differentiate between one social and economic formation which is a distinct social totality consisting of a set of specific conditions and any other socioeconomic formation. That is, practices are repeatable, and so too are societies in all of their detailed variations. Since Marxist analysis neither seeks nor starts from the basis of some universal categories or “unities of meaning” existing at some supreme level, it can explore different socio-cultural and economic systems to produce the knowledge needed to understand them in a constructive manner (1984:67, 68).

This paper begins by looking at how liberation theology situates itself within Marxism and Catholicism, in both general and the Philippine contexts, where I examine the BEC movement. It employs a postmodern perspective to examine the underlying conditions and assumptions that make subjective religious expressions like the BEC possible. To start, this approach calls into question many of the categorical assumptions born of western science. Like many of the traditional units of study in anthropology (e.g., ethnicity, kinship, and individual), supernatural categories that exist at a superhuman level are not empirically given (see Schneider 1984).  For example, in the 1990s, the hierarchical church in the Philippines established a BEC office in the face of an already existing Basic Christian Community-Organizer office because it perceived the latter to be too radical, as I go on to elaborate in part two. In this instance, the hierarchical church was asserting its position of authority and domination symbolically and materially over the earlier BEC movement by using the BEC name for its end. Before illustrating this case of a movement divided, however, a discussion of Marx’s concept of ideology is in order.

Part one: Religion and Ideology

The concept of ideology was coined in 1769 by the French philosophers Cabinis and Destutt de Tracy, who used it, in a literal sense, as the “science of ideas” as opposed to “metaphysics.” They articulated the concept during the French Revolution, which occurred during much disillusion with religious and political leaders using an elaborate otherworldly religion to justify and legitimize their authority and power. The Revolution set in motion a movement to secularize politics by looking for a worldly basis to solve problems in a worldly way. The concept of ideology served in epistemological and linguistic theories since, until used in a pejorative sense by Marx and Engels, who employed the concept to critique ideologies used to rationalize, justify, and legitimate the Industrial Revolution still in motion at the turn of the nineteenth century (Marx and Engels [1847] 1984).

Among others (e.g., Boggs, Carlsnaes, Jay, Larrain, and Williams), Bottomore (1983) pointed out that Marx and Engels were reacting critically to two divergent philosophical lines spearheaded by Feuerbach and Hegel. Unlike Feuerbach and Hegel, who did not refer religious and metaphysical distortions back to their material and discursive practices, Marx and Engels referred them back to their concrete referents. They looked specifically at the relationships between human misapprehensions and their material and discursive practices, and argued that social problems do not stem from ideological distortions but from social contradictions.

In other words, subjective and objective realities indeed interpenetrate. Distortions (false consciousness as opposed to class consciousness; mystifications—e.g., cultural and social spheres considered natural and inevitable; fetishisms—e.g., merchandise and capital) are a problem—a cause of suffering—but are, in turn, caused by material conditions. Bottomore (1983:219) alleged, “It is this relationship (between thought and material social reality) that the concept of ideology expresses by referring to a distortion of thought which stems from, and conceals, social contradictions.” The concept of ideology has been employed since, primarily by Marxists to refer to distortions of thought that obscure the social contradictions in which they are founded (Bottomore 1983).

Marx criticized Hegel's and Feuerbach’s thesis that thought determines the course of social change. As Murphy (1971:98) explains it, Marx turned around the theoretical perspective of Hegel and Feuerbach by proposing that “history was not the history of the mind but the history of man and his institutions, begotten by labor upon nature,” that is, thought does not exist apart from objective social life but works dialectically through human institutions changing them as they, in turn, change it. Marx made this point in his critique of Feuerbach:

The chief defect of all materialism up to now (including Feuerbach’s) is, that the object, reality, what we apprehend through our senses, is understood only in the form of the object of contemplation; but not as sensuous human activity, as practice; not subjectively. Hence in opposition to materialism the active side was developed abstractly by idealism—which of course does not know real sensuous activity as such. Feuerbach wants sensuous objects, really distinguished from objects of thought: but he does not understand human activity itself as objective activity (Marx 1972:197).

Marx showed how human beings misapprehended their discursive practices and material conditions while thinking about them. He defined his concept of ideology from the starting point of misapprehensions:

Consciousness can never be anything else than conscious existence, and the existence of men is their actual life-processes. If in all ideology men and their circumstances appear upside down as in a camera obscura, these phenomena arise just as much from their historical life-processes as the inversions of objects on the retina does from their physical life-process (Marx 1972:14).

In other words, humans think about their practices and circumstances, and their thoughts spur action. In this sense, Marx used ideology to study the content and structure of the thinking of the ruling classes. He showed how these classes used ideology in such a way to persuade the other classes to provide them services. But Murphy (1971:99) suggested, “This is not the only genesis of its [ideology's] inversions and illusions. This seems to arise in the first instance from the finite, limited, and restricted character of man's relationship to nature and to other men” (see also Marx 1972:16–21). Bottomore points out that the word “ideology” does not appear in Marx's early writings. However, Marx alludes to it in his critique of religion and of Hegel’s conception of the state, which he describes as “inversions concealing the real character of things” (Bottomore 1983:219), alludes to ideology similar to how Machiavelli discusses the strategies of princes who used brute force and corruption to obtain their ends. In contradistinction to Hegel who proposed that the idea of a political state caused its appearance in the empirical world as an absolute universal that determined society, Marx proposed that ideas were distorted to conceal events. He also called into question Feuerbach’s thesis: although Marx agreed that religion was made by men and women and that the idea of God as creator was really an inversion of the facts, he did not agree with Feuerbach that religion was therefore an illusion, an imagined grandiose directive, but showed that religion appeared through actual material and discursive practices.      

Later, Marx in Capital ([1867] 1972), refined his concept of ideology, concluding that the relationship between “inverted consciousness and inverted reality is mediated by a level of appearances that is constitutive of reality itself” (Bottomore 1983:220). This level of appearances is the economic infrastructure that determines a society’s logic and motion or its sphere of social and ideological relations. In a society dominated by the capitalist mode of production, for example, competition and the market constitute the level of appearances. That is, the sphere of circulation and exchange in the market generate the economic and political ideologies of the ruling classes in Western capitalist societies. However, Marx did not mean that all societies contain separate functioning parts whereby the economy becomes clearly visible, as in Western capitalist societies. Under European or American capitalism societal and economic unity manifests increasingly through bureaucratic means, whereby society becomes differentiated into discrete and functional institutions (economy, family, politics, religion, education). Hence, relations of production are enacted and it is easy to see how the economic instance becomes the basis upon which all other spheres of social life are grounded. But in other societies, especially pre-capitalist societies, relations of production and the corresponding forces of production that give direction to distribution and exchange are typically manifested through interpersonal relations enmeshed and contextualized in organizations other than the economic. As in capitalist societies, however, ideology works to conceal the underlying contradictions of social life by focusing on how economic relations appear on the surface (Godelier 1972).

Marx stressed that the word “ideology” works to conceal the hidden reasons why economic relations appear in diverse cultures and societies. For example, if in pre-capitalist societies kinship or religion dominates social life, then productive and redistributive networks are founded in kinship or religious systems, not the capitalist market system (Godelier 1972). The external forms that the relations and forces of production take themselves comprise the sphere of circulation and exchange that perpetuates ideological forms. Economic, political, legal, educational, familial, and religious ideologies interconnect in different ways and are reproduced within a total social and economic formation, ideologies which cannot be studied apart from their particular societies. Marx's conceptualization of ideology provides a wide range of entry points for inquiry. 

Althusser on Marx

Althusser showed that Marx did not approach the study of ideology in abstraction but at the concrete level. By so doing, Althusser challenged scholars who would use Marx’ theory dogmatically. He pointed out that previously, students (Lenin, Gramsci, and Lukacs) defined the term ideology in two ways: first, to refer to the ideological superstructure of a society, and second, to refer to the political ideas of particular classes. But, Althusser (1977:170) argued that both these ways of looking at ideology could be misappropriated by Communist hardliners to falsely refer to ideology in abstraction, without an empirical basis, and he provided the following alternative definition:

Ideology is the “lived” relation between men and their world, or a reflected form of this unconscious relation, for instance a “philosophy,” etc. It is distinguished from a science not by its falsity, for it can be coherent and logical (for instance, theology), but by the fact that the practico-social predominates in it over the theoretical, over knowledge. Historically, it precedes the science that is produced by making an epistemological break with it, but it survives alongside science as an essential element of every social formation including a socialist and even a communist society (Althusser 1977:252).

Althusser (1977:169) is exceptional. He recognized that “a theory is essential for the transformation of domains in which a Marxist theoretical practice does not yet really exist.” In other words, in the study of cultures and societies outside of Marx's Capital, the Marxist theoretical practice of epistemology (e.g., of the histories of science, ideology, philosophy, and art) for the most part remains unconstituted. Marxist anthropologists of other societies are not lacking, but Althusser pointed out that they did not have the revolutionary practice of Capital behind them—that is, their practice “had to be set [sic] on correct theoretical basis so that it corresponds to a real object, not a presumed or ideological object, and so that it is a truly theoretical practice, not a technical practice [ethnocentric formulas]” (Althusser 1977:169-70). Althusser insisted that the theory of dialectical materialism was appropriate for drawing up the conditions of a theoretical practice. He argued:

A real understanding of materialism reveals that (the researcher’s) labor is not a labor of the universal, but a labor on a pre-existing universal, a labor whose aim and achievement is precisely to refuse this universal the abstractions or the temptations of “philosophy” (ideology), and to bring it back to its condition by force; to the condition of a scientifically specified universality (Althusser 1977:183).

The utilization of dialectical materialism is not a matter of applying its formula to pre-existing content; rather the method clarifies aims as it guides the researcher’s analysis of a particular subject (Althusser 1977:169-70). Although Althusser’s methodological distinction between science and ideology is still controversial in Marxist thought, he clearly distinguishes between them (see Bottomore 1983:223). Moreover, since the anthropologist of non-Western societies and cultures is essentially moving into uncharted territory in Marx's dialectics, the primary research instrument is not theory but the dialectically and actively engaged anthropologist.

Althusser pointed out that Marx’s theory was not fully developed in his youthful work when he was concerned mainly with questions of alienation in an industrializing and dehumanizing world. Although he criticized Hegel’s ideas, his split from Hegel’s thought was incomplete. Marx charged Hegel with the fallacy of abstraction. He argued that the egocentric individualism existing in European bureaucratic structures diametrically opposed the Hegelian notion that the bureaucracy of a modern state was a universal class whose purpose was to realize the universal interest (Jessop 1982:4). However, Marx’s basic proposition that human beings created their own history was still very similar to Hegel’s fundamental thesis that the world created itself according to some universal spirit (Bottomore 1983).           

Later, however, Marx (1964, 1972, 1982) cut his roots from Hegelian epistemology (which Althusser would call his ideological prehistory) to develop a science of dialectical materialism (Bottomore 1983:13–15). The mature Marx addressed the theory of social formations and their histories in all of their conceptual and structural variations. From this time on, Marx viewed history no longer as a series of stages unfolding along some linear evolutionary path but as everywhere variable and subject to tireless investigation. To his credit Althusser (1977) was one of the first Marxists who emphasized the importance of this epistemological break with Hegel. Even Boggs (1984) in his review of Gramsci’s two Marxist revolutions (scientific and revolutionary) does not mention Marx’s departure from Hegel. Nor does Jay (1984:413) in his exegesis on the concept of totality in Marxist theories adequately differentiate Althusser’s concept of the social whole from that of his predecessors Gramsci and Lukacs. Jay concentrates only on Althusser’s aversion to “genetic meta subjects” (collective notions of the social whole), an aversion shared by Gramsci and Lukacs, rather than on the differences in their practical theories of social change. However, Althusser argued that Gramsci and Lukacs were Hegelian Marxists precisely because they sought to recenter humankind (Humanism). In contrast, Althusser emphasized that the social whole was actually decentered, even under the ruling class of communism. Althusser was more concerned about using Marx’s theory as an impetus to research new possibilities for social change and action than about using it as a political weapon in the hands of a class or a coalition of classes to forge another society along rigid communist party lines. Marx’s concept of the social whole broke with Hegel’s. Hegel’s dialectic presupposed an original unity that emanated outward by virtue of its own negativity to realize its original unity in an ever-expanding material social world. But, as Althusser put it, Marx insisted that the simple could only exist within a complex structure of dominance:

The universal existence of the simple category is never original, it only appears as the end-result of a long historical process, as the product of highly differentiated social structure; so, where reality is concerned, we are never dealing with the pure existence of simplicity, be it essence or category, but with the existence of “concretes” of complex and structured beings and processes. This is the basic principle that eternally rejects the Hegelian womb of contradiction (Althusser 1977:197).

For Althusser (1971), “ideology summons individuals as subjects” because individuals are socialized by their societies and cultures, are “called” out of an amorphous group to become a separate person distinct from others, a process which begins in childhood and continues as long as one continues to hear the “call.” The “call” turns individuals into subjects by telling them ways that they can be the subjects or authors of their actions and can assume social roles, even change society, and that they are dominated subjects who need to obey to occupy certain positions without complaint. According to this framework, individuals become qualified as change agents or disqualified as subjugated subjects.

The term “subject” is paradoxical, containing within itself the dialectical dimension of author as change-agent and subject as a dominated client. With this, social change becomes possible because it is always possible that someone will resist subjugation by acting differently (although this can be risky, for one can be silenced in various ways and for reasons that are political). Herein, however, resides the possibility for what Gramsci has defined as counter-hegemony, the awareness that there are possibilities for social life other than the dominant one, but this is a long difficult group process in which each move forward on behalf of the underclasses is met by an opposite move from the dominant classes.

Althusser considers that these processes of hegemony and counter-hegemony exist simultaneously, with one dominant, neither taking center stage; these processes occur even in existing socialist societies that have come about through revolution: societies which also exist in relation to other societies in a global capitalist system. In other words, dominators attempt to manipulate according to an ideology or image that they have of the dominated. But if the dominated reject the dominant ideology by asserting their own values (e.g., values of community and collective organization as opposed to values of competition and individualism) they are asserting their own alternative ideology.   

Marx's model society is made up of two levels: the economic base (the productive forces and the relations of production) and the ideological superstructure (different ideologies, religious, ethical, political, legal). The metaphor of an edifice shows how the economic base finally determines the superstructure. Althusser states expressly that he does not reject Marx’s metaphor but is clarifying—namely, the classical metaphor of an edifice represents only Marx’s descriptive model, which is subject to change. Althusser (1971:131) insists that it is necessary to go beyond Marx’s description “to think what characterizes the essential of the existence and nature of the superstructure on the basis of reproduction.” Then it becomes clear that Marx’s model is not reductionist with regard to the relationship between the economic base and the superstructure. For example, the indigenous system of agriculture in the upland corn farming community of Chapter 5 has food consumption and nutrition patterns which are community and collectively organized, which exist in contradistinction to those of capitalist industrial societies, which are individualistically and competitively organized. Nor are the former relations of production reducible to an economic base as are the capitalist relations of production.

Althusser’s “ideology” cannot be conceived apart from its positive and negative relationships to a dominant mode of production (e.g., capitalist relations of production) in relation to other modes of production (e.g., indigenous systems of agriculture) in an actually existing social and economic formation (e.g., the Philippines). Marx looked at the inner connections of economic phenomena in a historic totality. The concept mode of production and the changing ways in which one mode of production interacts with other modes to achieve its dominance is constructed and deconstructed in relation to a particular society as a whole (Wolf 1982:76). Althusser (1970:177) explained, “The relations of production cannot be thought of in their concept while abstracting them from their superstructural conditions of existence.” Relations of production, including class relations, cannot be abstracted from their concrete conditions, because certain relations of production presuppose their own political, juridical, and ideological superstructure. Relations of production are socioculturally specific, not mere reflections of an economic base. As Lukacs (1968:50) suggests: “For only when this relation is established (the relation of society as a whole) does the consciousness of their existence that men (and women) have at any given time emerge in all its essential characteristics.”

Althusser defines a social and economic formation as a decentered totality made up of the forces and relations of production, the economy, superstructure, state, and ideology. Althusser sees ideology as the imaginary relationship men and women have to their conditions of existence; ideology is enmeshed and contextualized in practices, discursive, nondiscursive, and material. Even when a person’s ideas do not refer back to his or her actions, they appear so to others. In Althusser’s (1971:150) words, “ideology has no history” because particular ideologies (religious, ethical, legal, political) express class, gender, and regional positions which always pertain to particular histories. For Althusser contemporary ideology results from sustained struggle between classes with the ideology of the hegemonic class working in and over the repressive (government, administration, military, police, courts, prisons) and ideological (churches, schools, family system, laws, political system including parties; trade-unions; communications; cultural, literary, and recreational arts) apparatuses of the state (Althusser 1971:150).

Many anthropologists and social theorists have assailed Althusser for being functionalist and outdated; interested readers are referred to them (Baudrillard 1975; Williams 1977; Rapp 1978:306-16; Thompson 1978:68; Thompson 1984:94; Roseberry 1989; Assiter 1990; Hartsock 1991). Althusser’s concept of ideological hegemony lacks an entry point for understanding the complexities of multiclass and intraclass struggles for hegemony, although he has left some hints. I have culled his theory for open-ended concepts as I have culled concepts from other related theories to use in fieldwork. I do not, however, completely agree with those who dismiss his theory. If Althusser's critics fault him for over rigidity in viewing a social formation as an economic infrastructure and a political, cultural, and ideological superstructure, Althusser’s theory is anything but economistic and iconoclastic. Althusser does not eliminate men and women from his theory and he aptly, in my opinion, defends himself in his Essays in Self Criticism (1976). Moreover, he paved the way for the emergence of Cultural Marxism by studying culture in specific institutions (e.g., in European mental asylums, hospitals, and prisons); even the culture theories of critics became clearer in their debates with him.

Thus, Marx tried to show that religion as ideology was a tool in the hands of leading economic and political elites to coverup irrationalities of the system of production, and he prophesied that it would decline when men and women started to think and relate to each other clearly. He called religion the “opiate for the masses” because it masked the contradictions: sources of human sufferings, unintelligible life circumstances, and natural calamities of various kinds in social life (Marx 1972, Ch.1; 1964:41-2; see also, Míguez 1976:49-50). However, evidence also indicates that people can use religion to “see, judge, and act” on problems clearly and collectively.

Some Later Philosophical Uses of Marx’s Theory

Pieris (1988) has written extensively about epistemological traditions in Christianity and Buddhism that have produced methods for liberating the mind of selfish desires and ideological projections—notably, monks who renounce the world to practice meditation techniques to clarify thinking (seeing) (1988). Evidence also indicates world religions have been challenged from within the context of their own faith by theologians who call for both a cultural revolution (e.g., attitudinal changes) and a structural revolution (e.g., systemic socioeconomic and ecological changes). These liberation theologians encourage people to think clearly and confront their problems collectively as exemplified in Asian people’s movements influenced by ethical liberation doctrines in Islam, Buddhism, and Christianity.

One example of Asian liberation theologies surging up from below is the BEC movement in the Philippines. On the one hand, participants in this movement seek solutions to problems through community worship and Bible reflection. On the other hand, they address problems through issue analysis, collective planning, decision-making, and pressure techniques in negotiations with employers, government officials, and landlords. McCoy (1984), for example, has conducted a case study on a Filipino BEC movement that acted in accordance with Marx's criteria for a self-conscious social movement (for similar kinds of study see also De la Torre 1986; Gaspar 1990; and Cacayan and Miclat 1991).

Marx stipulated that men and women who do not actively work together to solve problems practically would imagine solutions in the form of ideological distortions that conceal those contradictions. These distortions over time promote the interests of the dominant classes, unless they form the ideological basis for rebellion. For Marx, the conscious act of bringing problems into awareness through rational discussion and criticism, however, is not sufficient to solve them. It is only through persevering in solidarity that men and women reach solutions. As the BEC movement is a step in this direction, a few words are now in order.

Postmodern Currents

Since the breakup of the Soviet Union (1989–1991), nationalist scholars and practitioners of liberation theology publicly were debating and redefining Marxist concepts in the Philippines. Until then, the heated debates of the 1970s between theoretical Marxists in places where academic freedom prevailed were not widely publicized in the popular presses, and these debates anyway largely were suppressed in the Philippines until after the fall of the Marcos dictatorship in 1986. This is one possible reason why Marxist liberation theologians had been warned then by other Catholic theologians not to confuse the poor of the Scripture with the proletariat of Marx (Galilea 1984; Ratzinger 1984 in Haight 1985; Second Plenary Council of the Philippines 1991:97, 127).

Critics warned liberation theologians against using Marxist dogma, but they have not recognized that liberation theologians have criticized dogmatic Marxist theory in their own works. Even Pope John Paul II in his seminal Laborem Exercems (On Human Work), written in 1981 criticized liberation theology because of its Marxist tendencies, although like the liberation theologians, he also criticized capitalism and state technocratic socialism in his encyclical. Some inside critics (Galilea, Marins, Ratzinger) of liberation theology seem to be “lumping” various Marxist social teachings into one dogmatic strain of thought as if there were no multitude of strands in Marxism, and all of them consisted of “mechanistic models” of class struggle and revolution.

“Mechanistic” evolutionary models of modes of production (e.g., feudalism, capitalism, socialism, and communism) have long been criticized, specifically by neo-Marxist scholars working in areas where, at least, academic openness prevailed prior to the breakup of the Soviet Union. These scholars have criticized such mechanistic models for being dogmatic and ethnocentric (Nadeau 1994). They have also criticized mechanistic mode of production models for omitting considerations of gender, ethnicity, ecology, and local history in all its variations, most significantly culture (e.g., Lukacs 1968; Bloch 1984; Godelier 1972; Wolf 1982).

Most neo-Marxists would agree with liberation theologians that preconceived totalitarian visions of the economy and society have to be abandoned because they fail to address the democratic aspirations of common people. The impact of this progressive stream of thought on the Philippines, for example, provides a partial explanation for why allies and party members of the Communist Party of the Philippines were at loggerheads in the early 1990s, over the hard line taken by Armando Liwanag in his paper “Reaffirm Our Basic Principles and Rectify Errors” (1992:82-133; Rocamora 1993a:3-60, 1993b:44-79; Pomeroy 1993:61-74; Jalandoni 1993:7-15; National Democratic Front Council 1993:16-18; Pollard 1992). Globally, neo-Marxists and liberation theologians were arguing that culture, human agents, and ideology have a relative autonomy in social life and, for this reason, they need to be included in models of the economy, society, and social change. Among them were also neo-Marxist anthropologists and historians who agreed that local interactions needed to be considered into frameworks of large scale models of the relationship between capitalists and noncapitalists, and that indigenous context and history matter (e.g., Stoler 1985; Scott 1985; McCoy 1984; Kerkvliet 1990; and Mojares 1986:177-88).

 Neo-Marxist scholars like De la Torre, Nemenzo, and David, at least as early as the mid-1960s, made their criticisms of dogmatic leaders of the former Soviet Union and other dogmatic communist movements and regimes. They opposed those who would dogmatically apply Marx’s ideas as politics, rather than as an impetus for coming up with some new and creative ideas to solve practical social problems on local ground.

Marx’s concepts, like any other concepts or theories, are best seen as entry points for social analysis. Take for example his concept of a mode of production, that is, at best, a nonessentialist concept. A mode of production can only be understood in terms of the particular social formation and of the other modes of production that orient it. A mode of production is, therefore, open to analysis and change from any point on a wide spectrum of possibilities, for example, from the point of gender, history, environment, work, or religion.

It can be said that the fall of the Soviet Union has not marked the death of Marxism, rather it has opened up a wellspring of creative possibilities. This is one explanation for why so many environmentalists, feminists, liberation theologians, and social scientists of every sort are using Marxism as a way of dialectically and democratically looking at social life. It provides one possible venue for coming up with some new terms of agreement that are open to developing an ecologically sustainable and more humane planet earth.

These newer directions in Marxist thought are especially relevant to the evolution of Philippine theology of struggle. The “People Power” revolution opened new space for rethinking Marxism in the context of these newer experiences and realities. For example, after 1986, some communist party cadres began to question the ideological basis of the José Sison group’s decision to boycott the elections in a series of articles published in the clandestine network of the National Democratic Front. This led to a major rift in the party between those who adhered to Sison’s strategy for armed struggle and those who wanted to rewrite the program to make it more inclusive of other possibly more viable strategies as they arise.

Liberation theology like all theology is talk about God. It is an inductive methodology and process that discerns God in the life of the people by taking into consideration their aspirations and then looking to see what the Bible has to say about that. Liberation theology is biased for the poor and oppressed because the God of the Bible is on the side of the poor, as God comes down to live with them. Liberation theology does not begin through the entry point of any absolute perspective, rather it goes back to the people to think and reflect upon their experiences and realities, to better understand and identify their problems in solidarity with the people concerned. Liberation theology is “God talk” and its tools are Marxist analysis. In the words of one cadre priest, “unless you have the tools of analysis your consciousness is zero because conscientization is some sort of realization—a kind of thinking—it is a moment of ecstasy when people see the world differently. Then, they will become liberated and will identify with a class or group of people; this makes liberation theology a class struggle.”

In contrast the dogmatic structures of the Catholic Church are closer to the structures of scientific atheism. The Catholic Church and Marxist dogma are like two absolutes. Two absolutes clash, neither will give way. What they believe is what is right. But, there are no absolutes when it comes to facts. Facts are fallible and relative like morals, abortion, mortal sin, and a woman’s right to her own body. Like thunder and storm, heat and cold, unless both sides understand the parameters of the debate neither will go very far in understanding each other. Both the Church and Party are authoritative in nature, and have messianic and eschatological visions. Both call for justice, peace, equity, land reform, and citizen participation. For the Party, the new world of a classless society will come about through class struggle, will unfold according to global historical forces when peasants and laboring classes overthrow the ruling classes by surrounding them from the countryside. For the Church, the new world of promised land will result from the ongoing human struggle to build up God’s kingdom on earth, men and women will discern this historical plan as it unfolds in history—when the whole nation is remodeled as a liturgical BEC. But these overlapping tendencies between the Catholic Church and Marxist dogma remain at the level of structure, not content. They do not overlap in any other sense, except as they have met challenge from within by liberation theologians and neo-Marxists.

The theology of struggle in the Philippines stands in a complex relationship to Marxism. It is more political in practice than in the literature. Like in Latin America and Africa, however, practicing liberation theology in the Philippines is a risky endeavor. Lives are at stake. BECs are subject to militarization and hamletting which, not coincidentally, was done to the Vietnamese farmers by the Americans during the Vietnam War period. BEC workers and members are also open to salvagings (summary executions), and BEC priests risk being censored and ostracized.

Part Two: Basic Ecclesial Communities

Welch, who scrutinized liberation theology in relation to her own work in feminist theology, looked at the literature on liberational BECs through the lens of Foucault’s genealogy and archaeology of knowledge. She pointed out that liberation theologies are not merely variant strains of thought within a traditional theology, for example, progressive theologies versus conservative theologies within an overriding Catholic theology; rather they can be said to represent a new episteme of knowledge: a break from traditional theology. They are continuous with one tradition, among other traditions, within Christianity as a whole, namely, with a tradition that is critical of society and the institutional church (1985:24, 34).

Welch points out that Biblical texts and scriptures are important in theologies of liberation, but the formative basis of liberation faith is oriented in the present communities of readers who are doing the interpreting. For liberation theology, like neo-Marxism, is not based on some abstract category of knowledge that exists at the level of the supernatural. Rather it is based on a concrete category of knowledge that exists practically and historically in the present. Liberation theology is based on a relationship between God and God’s people in history. It is lived and reflected theologically as it is practiced. It is based in BECs that strategically and politically side with the poor and oppressed.

Liberation theology, like neo-Marxist theories, is concerned with the concrete social structure and situation of the poor. It is concerned with the consciousness that the poor have regarding their own situation, and it seeks to empower the poor by involving them in their own development process, especially in decision-making. It does not overlook the indigenous consciousness, for example, the religiosity of the poor; rather it expands upon it to enable the poor to become more aware of local possibilities for social change, some of which may entail compromising and negotiating, rather than class conflict. It enables the poor, many of whom are religious believers, to see their church’s teachings in a new light by depicting a God who is not only with them, but, above all, for them. Liberation theology is informed by ongoing struggles of the poor in the history of the Third World, and in this respect it is closer to neo-Marxism, not orthodox Marxism.

Some Problems of Practical Theology

However, theologies of struggle in the Philippines work differently on the ground than envisioned in the theories of the community organizers who use them, and in the writings of the theologians who reflect on them, such as in the writings of De la Torre (1986), Cosmao (1985), Lovett (1986), Gaspar (1990), and Pernia (1990). I limit my example here to Cebu City and its environs where I did fieldwork in 1993 on two principal and opposing BEC models operating in the Philippines. On one side, the Archdiocesan BEC office organized liturgical BECs. On the other side, the Basic Christian Community office organized liberational BECs. Although some bishops and priests unofficially approved of it, the Basic Christian Community office at that time did not have the insignia of the church hierarchy in every instance. The two organizing offices could be said to be similar because both were building BECs based on small, Bible-oriented groups. They differed because of their approaches to and interpretations of human and economic development. In the words of one Basic Christian Community officer:

The primary target of the BCC-CO (Basic Christian Community office) is the poor masses. We speak about the problems of the poor. The local bishops have not implemented the BEC model envisioned by the Second Plenary Council of the Philippines: a model that theoretically includes the same threefold (liturgical, developmental, and liberational) focus as the BCC-CO’s model.

Although there were other BECs in Cebu independent of these leading offices, they resembled one or the other and could have a double-edged effect.

The official archdiocesan office in Cebu City seemed to be drawing on an approach to economic and human development based more on modernization theory than on liberation theology. The approach of modernization theory differs from the more indigenous approach of liberation theology in that it assumes that capitalist rational behavior theories developed in the West can be transferred to develop other societies and cultures (Schneider 1974 and LeClair 1968). As one priest explained:

The funding agency (behind the archdiocesan BEC office) was looking for an expert in the area of developing cooperatives. The Scarborough Fathers are really master builders of cooperatives; they really invested a lot of money in them. They are master builders but their cooperatives never worked because they were meant for the poor but became more of a banking system catering to the middle classes. 

For example, the archdiocesan office seemed to promote the idea of reforming the Philippines from within by developing “good” Christian values of saving. Once this occurs, the Scarborough Fathers encouraged saving in small credit coops, although seed money is not given since it supposedly encourages dependency, for the sake of supporting one’s brothers and sisters in community, rather than for individual profit. They promoted a view of Philippine culture “as a damaged culture, as a culture poorly adapted to American culture as can be seen in the way Filipinos are paying for foreign debt and for imports.” Accordingly, the solution was one of merely changing the value system of the Filipinos to promote positive values such as love of country and Filipino products. However, is not this view of Filipino society and culture a way of making Filipinos think that it is totally their own fault that they are poor?

The archdiocesan BEC office in 1993 was funded generously by donations from German Catholicsunder the name of Misereor. The project director’s salary was US$ 1,000, or approximately 27,500 pesos per month, the assistant director earned 10,000 pesos per month; and the other two senior staff members received 7,000 to 8,000 pesos monthly, as compared to the average salary of 2,500 to 3,000 pesos for full-time labor apostolate workers in Cebu.Also, they had two new vehicles and a substantial bank account to work with. Staff members trained leaders who, in turn, continued to develop Bible study groups located primarily in urban centers, while the Basic Christian Community Organizer’s office and the Redemptorist mission teams served rural liberational BECs. The strategy of the Archdiocesan staff was to train BEC leaders from the different parish councils who would continue to develop BECs by way of giving additional seminars and forming Bible study groups. Similar in design to Catholic Bible sharing groups in the United States, the Archdiocesan BECs met weekly in small groups in members’ homes, or sometimes in parish halls or classrooms, to study passages from the Bible that were to be read in the following Sunday’s liturgy. They typically kept a record of attendance that was turned in to their local parish church office for forwarding to the Archdiocesan BEC office files. These BECs typically were composed of seven to eight members, mostly women. When I asked why more men were not present, invariably I was told that it is partially because of the machismo of Filipino men and the view in the Philippines that religion is only for women. However, I learned from members that they feel that the BEC has made a difference in their lives, especially at the level of the family. For example, one member told me that since she started attending the weekly BEC Bible study group she has been able to get along better with her teenage children and her husband. Before that she used to swear and curse and say unkind things to people, but now she has more understanding regarding the failings of her husband and others. Since she changed her own attitude and behavior, her husband has also mellowed. Unlike before when her husband used to come home later or not come home at all, now, she says he comes home in the evenings and sleeps early. Members in her BEC group were discussing a well-known scripture reading in Matthew 13 when this writer visited them.

The Bible reading they were discussing concerned the parable of the poor farmer who threw his seeds on stony, thorny, dry, and fertile grounds. They compared it to their own lives and involvement in the 24 required BEC leadership training sessions, which were being conducted by one of the local leaders in their parish council. Several members said that the seeds that were planted in fertile ground were like the seeds that were planted in them by the priest who challenged them to attend all 24 BEC sessions, because they attended these sessions even when they were very tired. In contrast, they likened the dead seed planted in thistles and thorns to those times when they have church activities to attend to, but go out to dinner or a party instead.

In contrast, the “unofficial” office seemed to draw on a holistic (not only liturgical, but social, cultural, political, economic, environmental) approach to development based on recent theories in neoMarxism and liberation theology. The director and staff emphasized transforming the capitalist system by resisting its repressive structures (e.g., by preparing farmers and fishers to act together to resist developers who hope to eject them from their land in order to convert their land into an industrial and tourist zone as is happening in Cebu). In 1993, 200 liberational BECs, or 26,389 families, participated in Bible sharing groups and ecologically oriented economic projects (e.g., ecological agriculture, livestock raising, seed nurseries; BCC-CO Visayas Updates 1993). This was a minute percentage of Cebu’s total population of 2.646 million, although it did not account for all other farmer organizations in the BEC network, or the unregistered BECs.  Also, the Basic Christian Community-Organizer’s office had been labeled as a communist front; thus, it called for a certain amount of personal courage to remain faithful in the long-term. Organizers encouraged farmers to resurrect and maintain traditional Filipino values and customs geared toward sustainable agriculture. They promoted practices that historically have borne religious significance—a closeness of spirit to nature—especially when these practices made good ecological sense. Moreover, traditional practices—neighbors who farm together and organic farming with the use of natural fertilizers, medicinal and insect repellent plants—required little capital input.

The Basic Christian Community Organizer’s office has built up over the years, a support network of friends locally and abroad, for example, by hosting groups of young Christian scholars and lay church workers from Europe and Japan who wish to learn about the life of BEC farmers. Unlike the Archdiocesan BEC office, they have no vehicles and rely on public transportation. Staff members also are not highly paid. The BEC supervisors manage local parish-based pastoral workers and guide and empower workers with basic organizing skills. Supervisors, once upland parish workers, transfer their skills to parish worker-apprentices by working alongside them in the field. Because the principle behind BEC formation is participation, parish workers are trained to develop and spot potential leaders in the barrios. They promote lay participation in the local community because these pastoral workers and staff are only facilitators. As one local BEC priest expressed it, “Without the active involvement of the communities the BEC program cannot be actualized.”

The Basic Christian Community organizers may well have been conflict—and issue-oriented in the past, as many outside commentators (e.g., the staff of the Archdiocesan BEC office) have claimed. They organized numerous teach-ins and mass demonstrations against the Marcos Martial Law regime. However, even then, they considered conflict analysis alone to be inappropriate for the Philippines, because it was too issue-oriented and insensitive to cultural nuances. Karl Gaspar says (1985:4) that BEC views, ideologies, and strategies “closely reflect the local situation of dehumanization that comes about from impoverishment and exploitation.” This situation is further aggravated by the ongoing militarization of the Philippines. I did not find conflict analysis in vogue in their upland rural communities; organizers enabled BEC members to address their own problems by listening to and guiding them. These liberational BECs also were supported by a fellowship of 15 priests who visited regularly. BECs from all over Cebu came together for worship, reflection, and celebration. The priest fellowship, an advocacy group for the liberational BECs with the local church hierarchy, was formed in 1988 when many of the Visayan bishops and diocesan priests threatened to disband the organizers’ office. As one area supervisor expressed it:

At that time (1987-1988) we were so depressed because we were always under attack. We were threatened, and we have facts on that, so at that time we were in a dilemma. So we came up with a wild idea to organize a fellowship of BEC priests who could support and stand up for us [within the hierarchy]. Also, we knew that some priests and a few of the bishops were sympathetic. We decided to convince these priests who really believed in the BEC program to form a fellowship.

Finally, the liberational BEC model of the Basic Christian Community organizers, not the liturgical model of the Archdiocesan office, can be seen as an example of a global trend toward the development of grassroots alternatives to the hegemonic discourse, symbol, and economic structures of modern capitalism. They seek to establish a necessary connection between religious truths and social and economic justice.


In summary, religion is mixed up with ideology. Marx defined ideology as the corruption of reason by interest, and analyzed the false consciousness of both the victims and creators of unjust social structures, that is, the unconscious rationalization by which both parties accept an inequitable and unjust social order as necessary because it is ordained by God, or destined by nature, or sanctioned by religion. Hence, what Marx saw as operative in society was ideology as a rationalization for the status quo. But a great oversight of Marx was his underestimation of the need for personal spiritual growth in a world of collectivism. Marx’s statement that religion is the opiate of the people was insightful in that it emphasized the relationship between three core components of religion—dominance, theodicy, and soteriology. Mutual self-help movements like the BECs are, or at least hope to become, not another opiate, but rather an antibiotic for what their members clearly perceive as the social and economic pathologies of the contemporary world.


  1. The author does not know why German Catholics fund BECs in Cebu, although a prestigious Catholic university established by German missionaries in Cebu may have been instrumental in establishing an early link between German Catholics and the Philippines.
  2. Salary information of the Archdiocesan BEC staff is publicly available knowledge contained in their monthly report to MISEREOR.


Asad, T.
1983 “Anthropological Conceptions of Religion: Reflections on Geertz.” Man 18(2).

Assiter, A.
1990 Althusser and Feminism (London: Pluto).

Althusser, L.
1970 Reading Capital (London: Verso).
1971 “Ideology and the State,” in Lenin and Philosophy and Other Essays (London: NLB).
1976 Essays in Self-Criticism (London: Verso).
1977 For Marx (London: NLB).

Baudrillard, J.
1975 The Mirror of Production (St. Louis: Telos).

Boggs, C.
1984 The Two Revolutions in Marxism, Antonio Gramsci and the Dilemmas of Western Marxism (Boston: South End Press).

Bottomore, T.
1983 A Dictionary of Marxist Thought (Cambridge: Harvard University Press).

Bloch, M. (ed.)
1984 Introduction to Marxist Analysis and Social Anthropology. London: Tavistock.

Cacayan, B. and A. Miclat
1991 Let Your Heart Be Bold, A Reflection Paper on Church Workers and National Security in the Philippines (Hong Kong: Asian Center for Progress).

Cosmao, V.
1985 Changing the World (Quezon City: Claretian Publications).

Crick, M.
1982 “Anthropology and Knowledge.” Annual Review of Anthropology 11.

De la Torre, E.
1986 Touching Ground, Touching Root (Manila: Socio-Pastoral Institute).

Feuchtwang, S.
1984 “Investigation Religion,” in Marxist Analysis and Social Anthropology (London: Tavistock).

Galilea, S.
1984 Liberation Theology and the Vatican Document (Quezon City: Claretian).

Gaspar, K.
1985 Father Rudy Romano, A Brief Story of a Life Dedicated in Solidarity with the Struggling Poor (Cebu City, Phil.: Task Force Detainees).
1990 A People's Option: to Struggle for Creation (Quezon City: Claretian).

Godelier, M.
1972 Rationality and Irrationality in Economics (New York: Monthly Review Press).

Haight, R.
1985 An Alternative Vision, An Interpretation of Liberation Theology. (Quezon City, Philippines: Claretian).

Hartsock, N.
1991 “Louis Althusser's Structural Marxism: Political Clarity and Theoretical Distortions.” Rethinking Marxism 4(4).

Jalandoni, L.
1993 “The NDF at 20: A Front United? Let Us Celebrate 20 Years of Struggle.” Kasarinlan, A Philippine Quarterly of Third World Studies 8(4).

Jay, M.
1984 Marxism and Totality (Berkeley: University of California Press).

Jessop, B.
1982 The Capitalist State, Marxist Theories and Methods (New York: New York University Press).

Kerkvliet, B.
1990 Everyday Politics in the Philippines (Berkeley: University of California Press).

LeClair, E.
196 “Economic Theory and Economic Anthropology,” in Economic Anthropology, Readings in Theory and Analysis, edited by E. LeClaire and H. Schneider (New York: Holt, Rinehart, Winston).

Liwanag, Armando
1992 “Reaffirm Our Basic Principles and Rectify Errors.” Kasarinlan, A Philippine Quarterly of Third World Studies 8(1).

Lovett, B.
1986 Life Before Death, Inculturating Hope (Quezon City: Claretian).

Lukacs, G.
1968 History and Class Consciousness, Studies in Marxist Dialectics (Cambridge: Massachusetts Institute of Technology).

Marx, K.
1964 Pre-Capitalist Economic Formations (New York: International).
1972 Capital, Volume I, II, III (New York: International).
1982 “Pathways of Social Development: A Brief Against Suprahistorical Theory,” in Introduction to Sociology of Developing Societies, edited by H. Alavi and T. Shanin (London: MacMillan).

Marx, K. and F. Engel
1984 The German Ideology (New York: International Publishers).

McCoy, A.
1984 Priests on Trial (New York: Orbis Books).

Miguez B. J.
1976 Christians and Marxists: The Mutual Challenge to Revolution (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans).

Mojares, R.
1986 “Artist, Craftsman, Factory Worker: Concerns in the Study of Traditional Art,” in Philippine Quarterly of Culture and Society14(3).

Murphy, R.
1971 The Dialectics of Social Life: Alarms and Excursions in Anthropological Theory (London: Basic Books).

National Democratic Front Council
1993 “NDF Declarations: Uphold the Programs, Constitution, and Structures of the 1990 Congress” in Kasarinlan, A Philippine Quarterly of Third World Studies 8(4).

Pernia, A.
1990 God’s Kingdom and Human Liberation (Manila: Divine Word).

Pieris, A., S.J.
1988 An Asian Theology of Liberation (New York: Orbis Books).

Pollard, V.
1992 “Democratizing the Philippine Revolution: Squaring the Circle for the CPP.” Paper presented at the SEASSI Conference held at the University of Washington, Seattle.

Pomeroy, W.
1993 “Debate,” in Philippine Left Review 6.

Racamora, J.
1993a “Debate,” in Philippine Left Review 6.
1993b “The NDF Program and the CPP Program for a People's Democratic Revolution: Umbilical Cord or Lifeline?” Kasarinlan, A Philippine Quarterly of Third World Studies 8(4).

Rapp, R.
1978 “Gender and Class: An Archaeology of Knowledge Concerning the Origin of the State” Dialectical Anthropology 2(4).

Roseberry, W.
1989 Anthropologies and Histories (New Brunswick: Rutgers Press).

Schneider, H.
1974 Economic Man, The Anthropology of Economics (New York: Free Press).

Schneider, D.
1984 A Critique of Kinship (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan).

Scott, J.
1985 Weapons of the Weak: Everyday Forms of Peasant Resistance (New Haven: Yale University).

Second Plenary Council of the Philippines
1991 Acts and Decrees of the Second Plenary Council of the Philippines (Manila: Catholic Bishops' Conference of the Philippines).

Stoler, A.
1985 Capitalism and Confrontation in Sumatra's Plantation Belt, 1870–1979 (New Haven: Yale University Press).

Thompson, E. P.
1978 The Poverty of Theory and Other Essays (New York: Monthly Review Press).

Thompson, J. B.
1984 Studies in the Theory of Ideology (Oxford: Oxford University Press).

Welch, S.
1985 Communities of Resistance and Solidarity, A Feminist Theology of Liberation (New York: Orbis Books).

Williams, R.
1977 Marxism and Literature (Oxford: Oxford University Press).

Wolf, E.
1982 Europe and the People Without History (Berkeley: University of California Press).